I’ve said it before: In astrophotography, your equipment matters. Without the right gear, you can’t take the pictures you want. But that doesn’t mean that you have to rush out and buy a truckload of expensive toys before you can start. In fact, I’d strongly argue against doing that because there is nothing more dispiriting that blowing a month’s salary on cameras and optical gear only to find that you don’t have the necessary skills to use them, and that your pictures are still rubbish. No, the correct approach is to take what you have and learn to use it properly. Then, as you feel ready to progress, buy the next accessory or upgrade. Build up the skills, and let the equipment follow.
There are four basic components to an astrophotography rig: camera, optical train, mount and computer. The camera is the most fundamental component in your rig since it captures the light and produces an actual image. The optics are equally important, since they gather the light in the first place and bring it to a focus for the camera. They can be built in to the camera, as with camera phones or compact cameras, they can be sold as seperate lenses for use with a DSLR, or they can be a telescope – very popular with astrophotographers. The mount is the component least necessary to photograph the sky, yet has the greatest impact on the eventual quality of the image. A mount that does not hold the camera steady against vibrations in the ground or buffeting from the wind, and that does not accurately track in compensation for the Earth’s rotation will leave you with motion blur in all your images that cannot be fixed. Finally, the computer is needed to process the digital data leaving the camera and enhance it to produce useful imagery.
Image editing, or “Photoshopping”, has become synonymous with creating fake images on the internet, or unrealistic representations of a model’s beauty, but unprocessed astronomical images are uniformly faint, colourless and uninteresting. Processing is essential, not only if you want to make your image beautiful, but also to bring out the faint details that would otherwise be lost in the noise. It is simply the next step in the process of imaging the sky. Interestingly, the computer doesn’t have to be particularly powerful. Provided it meets the minimum requirements of a modern operating system, it will be able to run most modern astrophotography and image processing applications. The only catch is that many processing functions are computationally intensive, so that a slow computer will cause you to spend a lot of time staring at progress bars.