Updated: Jun 2
Astrophotography has a steep learning curve. If that's not enough, you may run into mistakes that are easy to overlook. Over the years, we have experienced several nights that were a complete waste and were ruined by mistakes we made. However, the best way to learn is from your mistakes, and success means never repeating the same mistake twice.
We decided to make a list of helpful tips for beginner astrophotographers. We hope that this finds you before you go into the field and encourages you to continue in this wonderful hobby. Below is a summary of tips, but continue reading to learn how this list came to be.
5 Tips for Beginner Astrophotographers:
Check your camera
Arrive before sunset
Keep cables tidy
Attach telescope after the weights
Set up on stable ground
1. Check Your Camera Every 30 Minutes
This may be obvious to everybody, but we still remember our very first night with our brand-new telescope. The sky was completely clear, the temperature was optimal, there was no wind, and our polar alignment was really good! We were so excited, we launched a series of photos on M45 - The Pleiades and let it go. We passed the time in our car by watching a movie, pleased that we had the best conditions possible.
Then, two hours later, we stepped out to see if the camera still had battery power. The battery level was fine, but every single picture taken had star trails. WHAT. We walked around the telescope to see if anything was wrong, and we saw it... The cap on our guide scope was still on.
It was a simple mistake, but you cannot imagine how stupid we felt at that point. For two long hours, the guide camera could track nothing which, of course, confused the mount and thus produced star trails.
We never made this mistake again, and we hope you never do as well!
2. Arrive at the Location Before Sunset
Installing a complete astrophotography setup is already difficult, so save yourself the trouble and get set up before you can't see anything.
We understand that it may not always be possible because of work, school, or other duties during the day. But when you can, always try to arrive at your imaging location while the sun is still up.
You could use your car's headlights to help you see, but the light could attract insects like mosquitoes, spiders, or other little critters.
We recommend arriving one hour before the sun is down so that you have time to install every heavy piece of equipment while there is still light, then take care of polar alignment and other little things right after.
3. Keep Your Cables Tidy
Cable management is often overlooked. Honestly, we didn't make any moves to improve cable management until we were well into our astrophotography days. One stray cable can get stuck or tangled and ruin your tracking. This actually happened to us once... It was awful.
For some reason, we never gave a thought to our cables potentially getting stuck, but one event changed it all. After we slewed the mount to aim at a target on the opposite side of where it was originally pointing the power cable became tangled and got stuck on one of the mount's knobs when it was rotating.
If you need options for cable management, check out #1 of our 5 Cheap Useful Accessories for Astrophotography.
4. Never Attach the Telescope Before the Weights
This is also an obvious one, but we did this mistake once and almost dropped our telescope! Never, ever, attach your telescope to the mount before the weights.
If you do, the telescope will be thrown downwards as soon as you let it go, as there will be nothing to balance the weight on the mount.
5. Ensure the Ground is Stable
After months of being on our bucket list, we finally visited a Bortle 1 zone! This was our first time setting up in a completely different location than the one we are used to, and... an entire night was wasted!
Although we entered the correct coordinates in our mount, it refused to track properly. Even with our DSLR and a 24mm lens attached, a 30-second shot was full of star trails! We could not figure out the problem until we were packing up, and once again, we felt like failures.
The mout, under the heavy weight of the telescope and all the accessories, sank into the ground on one side, so everything was crooked. We were so used to setting up on concrete that we did not think of "pre-sinking" the mount into the dirt. Wasting one out of two nights in a Bortle 1 zone is really sad.
The Milky Way... with a bad tracking at 24mm. You can see airglow on the horizon.
Those were our 5 tips for beginner astrophotographers. You can also see them as lessons to never repeat. As tough as it is to say, we're happy those events happened so that we could learn from them. We hope that you find these tips helpful for your astrophotography journey. Let us know if you have any tips you recommend to beginners by leaving a comment below.