Deep Sky Astrophotography with just a DSLR camera and tripod - Is it possible?

Updated: Apr 10

Astrophotography is a wonderful hobby, but can be very difficult to get into. There are hundreds of people out there who love astronomy, spend lots of time on astrophotography forums, follow astrophotographers on Instagram and wish they could image on their own, but are afraid to jump into this pastime... Why? Because it is well known that astrophotography is an expensive hobby.


People are scared. And it's understandable! We've been in love with astronomy and amateur pictures of space well before we started to do it ourselves. We were scared. We were both students with part time jobs and very little income, and there was no way we could afford a telescope (which by the way we thought would be thousands of dollars back then) and everything that goes with it.


But we were motivated. Motivated to get our own photographs of the heavens, without spending money we didn't have. After spending months trying to learn how to get started, we finally decided to attempt our first picture of the stars, with an old point and shoot camera. You can read more about this in our Astronomy as a Couple post, but it was... not impressive.


But you know what? we were hooked! We managed to find a cheap, used Canon T3i camera on eBay that came with two lenses (kit lens and telephoto lens). We decided to purchase it, and this was the best decision we made in a long time. Learn why below!



Is one able to capture a deep sky object with just a DSLR and a tripod, without any tracking? Well, the answer is yes, and that's how we began in the hobby!

We're going to be straight and honest with you all, do NOT expect to get Hubble-like results with just a tripod and a camera.


Sure, your pictures might not be very impressive at first, but when you are just beginning in astrophotography, trust us, the feeling of knowing that YOU captured those photons, which traveled thousands or millions of light years to reach YOUR camera... There is nothing quite like that accomplishment!


So what can you photograph with just a stock DSLR camera and a tripod? Let's start with an easy one, our bright satellite!


EXAMPLE 1 - THE MOON

Yes, the moon is not considered a Deep Sky Object, but we decided to include it anyway. Doing Lunar Astrophotography is very simple with just a DSLR camera and a tripod. Try to get your hands on a telephoto lens. Our camera, bought used from eBay, came with a basic telephoto lens, the Canon 75-300mm lens which works great for the moon.


You really don't need a tracking mount for the moon, it is so bright that we can keep our exposure time very short. This might not be the case if you are attempting to image the moon on a very thin crescent phase and would like to include the dark part as well, but beginners usually don't bother with the unlit area of the moon.



Settings we use for the Moon:

  • Aperture:

11-16

  • Shutter speed:

1/125 - 1/250

  • ISO:

100-200

  • Other:

Crispness level to the Max

Spot Metering

Our aperture cannot be wide open or the moon will look completely blown up due to its brightness. We usually set it between f/11 and f/16 and see how it goes. We keep our shutter speed fast, between 1/125 and 1/250 so that once again the moon doesn't look to white and washed out. This depends on the phase of the moon on the night you are photographing it. We keep the ISO as low as possible so that we don't add any unnecessary noise to our image.


The other settings are not critical but can be helpful. We crank up the Crispness to the max so that the craters are more refined. We select Spot Metering in the focus settings which will allow us to focus on a specific area of the object.



The Moon is cool and all, but that's not why you clicked on this post right? You're here because you'd like to know if you can photograph DEEP sky objects with just a DSLR camera and a tripod. So let's proceed to our main concern here: Can you or can you not image deep sky objects with this set up and if yes, what are the best targets to shoot?





EXAMPLE 2 - DEEP SKY OBJECTS
  • Galaxies

Galaxies are usually small and are not great targets for wide field imaging or untracked astrophotography... But it's not impossible to capture some!


There are several galaxies that can easily be photographed with just a DSLR camera and a tripod.

The best and obvious one is the Andromeda galaxy, it is bright, rises high in the sky, easy to find, and very large (6 times the size of the full moon)!


Another good galaxy to attempt is the Triangulum galaxy. It is located not far from M31 and is also fairly large and bright.


Five galaxies than can be captured without a telescope and tracking:


  1. The Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31)

  2. The Triangulum Galaxy (Messier 33)

  3. The Whirlpool Galaxy (Messier 51)

  4. The Pinwheel Galaxy (Messier 101)

  5. Bode's Galaxy (Messier 81) with its neighbor the Cigar Galaxy (Messier 82)



  • Nebulae

There are not too many nebulae that can be photographed without a tracking device, but you can definitely capture some if you have the motivation! Most nebulae have a lot of Hydrogen Alpha gas, meaning a modified DSLR camera or one with an HA filter will definitely pick up more data. This post was written assuming you are using a stock DSLR camera and no filter, just like us, so here is our two cents:


Below is the result of less than one hour on the Orion Nebula with a cheap setup, the Canon t3i, a tripod and a 300mm lens at F/5.6. It was quickly processed on Deep Sky Stacker.

On that particular night, we did not have an intervalometer, so that means we took all shots manually, one by one. We were beginners, so our processing was not great, and maybe we got a little too crazy with the saturation...

But eh! We're proud of this image and will always cherish it as our first good photo of a nebula.



Five nebulae than can be captured without a telescope and tracking:

  1. The Orion Nebula (Messier 42)

  2. The Horsehead Nebula (IC 434) with its neighbor the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024)

  3. The California Nebula (NGC 1499)

  4. The Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8)

  5. The Trifid Nebula (Messier 20)


  • Star Clusters

What about star clusters? Can you photograph them with just a DSLR camera and a tripod?


The answer is yes, but besides the famous Pleiades clusters shown below, they might not look very impressive. With a basic, cheap lens and no tracking, most globular clusters may look like a fuzzy and messy ball of stars. As for open clusters, they might look... boring. We'd love to see some of your images if you ever attempted open or globular clusters with your DSLR camera, tripod and lens.




Settings we use for deep sky objects:

Aperture:

Either wide open or f/4

Shutter speed:

BULB - Depends on the lens

ISO:

800,1600 or more depending on temperature and camera

Other:

N/A, we keep all the other settings as default.



Because you will not be tracking the sky and will be limited in how long your exposures will be, the aperture should be wide open (so that you can gather the most possible light), f/1.8 or f/2.8 for most lenses. If you feel like there is way too much coma on the edges of your shots, try setting the aperture to around f/4. This should make all the stars pinpoint, but you will gather less light. It's all about what you prefer.


The shutter speed will depend on your lens. Try the 600 or 500 rule (500/focal length of the lens) to determine what shutter speed you can use with your camera. Note that this also depends on the size of your sensor and it should only serve as a base as the math isn't always perfect.


The ISO should be high enough but not too high that it introduces too much noise. Usually, we aim for 800 on a hot night, or 1600/3200 on a cold night.


All the other camera settings can be left as default.





MORE EXAMPLES - THE MILKY WAY, PLANETS, COMETS...

If you feel like you've imaged all the large enough deep sky objects with your DSLR camera and lens, but are not ready to buy a star tracker or a telescope setup yet, know that you can do much more with what you have!


  • The Milky Way

Well, everybody knows that, but you can photograph the Milky Way with your DSLR camera and tripod. Using a wide field lens, head over to a dark site and aim for the Milky Way band in Summer. With just about 20 seconds of exposure time with your aperture wide open, what you will see on your little LCD screen will blow you away.


  • Planets

This might sound surprising, but you definitely can capture planets with your camera and no motorized mount. Using a telephoto lens (preferably 300mm or more), aim for Jupiter or Saturn, and shoot away using the same settings you used for the moon. Depending on your exposure time, the planet itself may or may not be blown out but if that is the case, you should be able to see the planets moons! You can combine two images with different exposure times to get awesome results that are sure to impress your friends and family.


  • Comets

This one is a bit tricky. Comets are pretty random and are rarely very bright. We attempted photographing Comet Catalina several years ago with our DSLR camera and 50mm lens, and we got it! See image on the right. You can also see the galaxy Messier 51 on the top right side!



The Milky Way, Jupiter & moons, and Comet Catalina & M51 using a DSLR camera and lens.


FINAL THOUGHTS

We hope this guide was helpful to you!


Some extra advice we'd like to give you is to use a wider lens for better results (example: a 50mm lens instead of a 300mm lens), as these will allow you to take slightly longer exposures than if you were using a telephoto lens. Wider lens also usually have a better range in the aperture.


It is also a good idea to bring binoculars with you to scan the sky for large, bright targets. You can also use an app on your phone to find the most popular objects quickly depending on the season.

We have a full list of the best wide field targets without a telescope on our website, give it a read if you plan on purchasing a tracker soon!


Below is the video version of this guide:



We'll see you next time for other videos and tutorials,


Clear Skies,

Galactic Hunter



Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to stay up to date with our work!




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Description: The Astrophotographer’s Journal is a portable notebook created for the purpose of recording observations, cataloguing photographs, and writing down the wonderful memories created by this hobby. This book contains more than 200 pages to memorialize your stargazing and imaging sessions, as well as a useful chart on the last pages to index exciting or important notes. Read back on the logs to see how much progress you have made through the months, the problems you overcame, and the notes taken to improve in the future. Just as the pioneers of astronomy did in their time, look up and take notes of your observations as you are the author of this star-filled journey.

Description: The Constellations Handbook is a logical guide to learning the 88 constellations. Learning the constellations is difficult. Remembering them is even harder. Have you ever wanted to look up to the night sky, name any pattern of stars and be able to tell their stories?

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