Astro Setup

Last updated October 20th 2020

Nikon D5500

I started shooting stars with an Olympus C5060 holding the camera lens against the lens of my Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 102az. The camera was a great camera in its time of 2004 but a lot has changed since then. After spending many hours researching the right camera and going back and forth from Canon to Nikon I finally settled on the Nikon D5500 as it was designed for low ISO exposures which allows you to take great shots of the night sky. Here are a few examples of images I have taken with the camera and different lenses I have used.

It’s a solid camera and works really well for what I want to use it for, which is mostly astrophotography. I have been enjoying this new hobby a lot lately but I also enjoy going outside and shooting normal day shots as well. As I continue down this hobby I am sure I will eventually buy a dedicated astrophotography camera but currently, I am sticking with the Nikon D5500.

RedCat 51 (Upgraded)

What is there not to say about the RedCat 51? It’s an amazing APO (An apochromat, or apochromatic lens (apo), which has better correction of achromatic and spherical aberration than the much more common achromat lenses.) It allows me to take amazing pictures of the sky and it’s freaking beautiful!

With the lens, I am able to take pictures of Nebula’s, Galaxies, and anything between. I have yet to use it during the day yet but I am sure I will eventually use it to take day shots. There are lots of nice things in this little package for sure to enjoy! Some of the great features about this particular setup is the following.

First, it comes with a Bahtinov Cap, from the Williams optics website: The Bahtinov Cap creates three lines that pass through a bright star. There are a main large line and a smaller cross-section of two lines making an “X”. The goal is to get the large line centered between the X and centered on the star. Once that is done, you have a perfect focus in as little as 2 to 3 seconds.

Next, it comes with a nice carrying case so you can easily store it if you are going out to a dark site to shoot stars. Finally, it’s super compact so it doesn’t take up a lot of room and is also super light. For the price you just can’t beat the optics, you are going to be hard-pressed to be able to find a 200mm APO at this price with all these features. I know Trevor Jones recently worked with Radian to make the perfect APO at 275mm but at a price tag of $999.99. I am just not sure the extra $251.99 difference is going to be that much better. Plus those extra funds can go toward a guide scope and a camera or other upgrades in the field.

iOptron SkyGuider Pro w/ iPolor

I used this setup for a few days with my Red Cat 51 while it may work for a people I am not sure it’s worth the spend, I will explain in more detail below. In the picture to the left, I have the following:

Camera: Nikon D5500
Optics: RedCat 51
Base Mount: William Optics Low Latitude Vixen-style Base Mount & Extension Bar
Mount: iOptron Skyguider Pro w/ iPolar
Tripod: Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB 100

On top of the camera, I am using a ULANZI Universal Phone Tripod Mount with a Motorola Nexus 6 and a StartSense Explorer 3d printed mod to use the Celestron StarSense Explorer app. I was excited about this setup but it didn’t work out in the end as the Alta Pro tripod couldn’t handle the weight so I sent back the WO Low Latitude Vixen-Style base and iOptron Skyguider Pro and upgraded to a different mount.

Now just to stress something here, this is a good setup and it works for a lot of users. If you go to YouTube you will find a lot of users explaining how they love this setup and it allows them to track the stars easily and they can move this very light setup from one location to another very easily. I am sure when it was all said and done if I would have waited for a new Tripod this too may have been a solid setup for me as well. Sadly I didn’t wait for the upgraded tripod for a couple of reasons, the biggest being price. If anyone that knows anything about astrophotography they will tell you that this is an expensive hobby. Just call the OPT (800) 483-6287 number and while you are on hold they say the exact same thing and say they offer lots of financing to help you enjoy this hobby. At the point of buying the mount and parts and new tripod I was pushing $991.79 this price does not include the used Nikon D5500 or the RedCat 5, oh no dear reader I have over $2K invested in this little hobby of shooting the stars.

I don’t tell you this to brag I tell you this as a buyer beware! This is not a cheap hobby and is quickly adding up as I want to continue to take more pictures of the skies and continue to tweak my setup. From the hardware to software, to time outside it’s a lot of money and also a lot of dedication! Sadly there is not a cheap way to get into this hobby. Maybe a cheap DSLR and homemade barn door is a good start but depending on the DSLR you are talking $200-$400 plus materials to build the barn door and that doesn’t include the tripod. The bottom line is the iOptron is a good starting point but I think if you can invest the extra money into a more robust mount I would do it, especially if you plan to grow in this hobby with better gear over time.

Sky-Watcher EQM-35

Since the iOptron Skyguider Pro /w iPolor was right at about $1K for the initial setup I decided to send it all back and move into the EQM-35. Why the EQM-35? Well, it’s a good budget mount at $725, it can also handle up to 22 pounds of weight so if I ever outgrow the RedCat I can upgrade to a larger APO and the iOptron only supported 11 pounds of weight so there is no room for growth just a new mount and more money down the drain. Also, this mount offers a GOTO system so you can plug in the coordinates into the SynScan hand control unit and find 49,000 objects in the sky. Out of the box, it can track 30-60 seconds in the stars.

Overall this is a good setup however there are some drawbacks. First, the setup requires power so unlike the iOptron that you can charge and run for 48-72 hours you need a dedicated power supply for the EQM-35 be that a power cell that supports a 12V cigarette lighter or a dedicated power supply. Since I don’t plan on leaving my Bortles Class 4 backyard for the current time being, I purchased the Celestron AC Adapter – 5 Amp Continuous power, Black (18780) which was recommended by the Sky-Watcher customer service who I can say is darn right amazing! Next, it’s more complex so when you set this up not only do you need to polar align the mount you also need to configure either 1, 2, or 3-star alignment so you can easily move around the sky. Finally, it’s much bulkier than the iOptron so it’s not as easy to just pick up and move as the iOptron, and if you do move it during a session you need polar align and star align again.

Even with the few drawbacks, it’s a fantastic mount and so stable! I have been really pleased with the setup, instructions, and overall solid build quality even though it’s an entry mount. Also, solid customer service is a big plus! As long as I don’t keep going down the rabbit hole of astrophotography this setup should last me for multiple years.