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Beginner Astrophotography: A Complete Guide

Updated: Jun 12

In this guide, we will go over everything you need to know about starting astrophotography. It is our hope that this post will take away some of the fears you may have when you think about both the difficult aspect of this hobby and the costs associated to it. Trust us, you can get wonderful images with very basic equipment and with very little training. Let's get started!


Astrophotography tutorial for beginners

Table of contents:

  • A full Beginner Astrophotography setup

  • Wide Field vs close up Astrophotography

  • Astrophotography with just a DSLR camera and a tripod

  • Astrophotography with a DSLR camera, tripod and star tracker

  • Astrophotography with a DSLR camera and a telescope

  • Using a modified camera for Astrophotography

  • How we got started

  • Our very first image of the night sky

  • Tips for your first image of the night sky

  • The Bortle Scale: Understanding and escaping light pollution

  • Our very first astrophotography rig

  • Equipment upgrades over time

  • How to connect your DSLR camera to a telescope?

  • How to use the intervalometer

  • How to choose your first telescope?

  • Small vs large telescopes: Is bigger always better?

  • The mount: How tracking works

  • The importance of balancing your equipment

  • How to polar align?

  • Cable management

  • Stacking: What is it and why bother?

  • Taking Calibration frames

  • Processing Astrophotography data

  • Other types of Astrophotography

  • Conclusion

Want to learn all aspects of astrophotography in the most efficient way possible?

Online astrophotography courses and processing guides

The Galactic Course includes a membership that gives you unlimited access to all our astrophotography courses and processing guides. Step into an ever-growing realm of knowledge and learn at your own pace. Make life-long friends and connections with other members, and get tips from instructors that truly care about your journey and progress under the night sky.


A full Beginner Astrophotography setup

What does a full Astrophotography setup look like? We will go over a more advanced astrophotography rig later in this guide, but for now, what are the absolute crucial parts that make up a complete setup? It is important to know that just having a telescope doesn't mean you can do Astrophotography. If you do not have the funds to purchase a complete rig, it is actually better to start imaging the night sky wide field with just a DSLR camera, lens, and tripod. We'll also go over this later.

Full portable astrophotography setup

A typical Astrophotography setup is composed of:

  • A motorized mount (German Equatorial or Strain Wave Gear)

The one we are using in the image above is the ZWO AM5 which is a strain-wave gear mount and is, in our opinion, the best beginner mounts as of today. The EQ6-R Pro is a GEM mount and is also a good reliable mount. It used to be the very best until the arrival of the AM5. Know that astrophotography mounts are usually more expensive than the actual telescope, which might come as a surprise to you! The mount is extremely important as it will ensure your stars look round and crisp. A low-quality mount will be more likely to have tracking issues and result in blurry images.

  • A Telescope

First of all, you do not need a telescope to do astrophotography! For a full deep-sky rig that includes a telescope, most beginners tend to purchase a small refractor telescope like the one seen in the image above. Some others, like us, decided to go the reflector way which we'll talk about later as well. Refractors are usually easier to use but are also more expensive. An example of a great beginner refractor telescope is the small Askar FRA300 or the Apertura 75.

  • A Camera

The camera is the third main part of the setup. Since you can't take photos with your eyes (yet, come on Elon!), you'll need to attach a camera to your telescope to capture the beauty of the night sky. You can do so easily with a "T-Ring", which is a very affordable, small piece that replaces the lens connection. There are four main types of cameras: DSLR/Mirrorless cameras, uncooled astrophotography cameras (usually for guiding or planetary), cooled One-Shot-Color cameras, and cooled monochrome cameras.

  • An Intervalometer (or laptop)

An intervalometer allows you to control your DSLR camera's exposure times and the number of shots you would like it to take. This is a small accessory that you connect to the side of the camera and just leave hanging all night while your camera is imaging. Alternatively, you can instead use a laptop with a DSLR acquisition software like BackyardEOS if you do not want to bother with an intervalometer. We personally feel like using an intervalometer is easier.

  • The Auto-guiding Solution

Unless your main camera has a built-in guide sensor, you will need a "guide scope" with a dedicated guide camera attached to it. Motorized mounts can track the sky pretty well, but their accuracy depends on how good your polar alignment is. A guiding solution (guide scope + guide camera) connected to a computer running a specific software will lock on one specific star and analyze its movement every couple of seconds. It will then send very fine corrections to the mount every few seconds to remind it to stay on track!

  • A Battery

If you plan to image from your backyard, then you don't need to bother with a portable battery! If, like us, you start this hobby without having a backyard and have no choice but to travel every time you want to image, then you need to invest in either a deep cycle battery or even better, a much lighter Lithium battery. These will connect to your equipment and power it all night long!

Those were the main parts that compose a full astrophotography rig. You will see later in this post that this list can easily double in size when you get more and more advanced in the hobby. One of the running jokes about astrophotography is that once you start, you can never stop spending money on new equipment!


Wide Field vs Close Up Astrophotography

Astrophotography can be done in several different ways. You can image the Orion Nebula with a telescope (left) and get a nice close-up view of this object, or with just a camera lens (right) and capture the entire nebulous region around the object.

The size of the telescope (or lens) you use is important because different sizes will give you different fields of view. You only have a large telescope and the Orion Nebula does not fit entirely in your frame? No problem, you can focus your attention on the Trapezium cluster in the core of M42!

Down the line, it is great to own two telescopes, a small one with a wide field of view, and a larger instrument for close-up shots of the universe.

The Orion Nebula, with and without a telescope. Can you spot it on the image on the right?


Astrophotography with just a DSLR camera and tripod

As I mentioned earlier, you do not need a telescope or an expensive rig to do astrophotography. The best way to start astrophotography is by using what you already have! We started with an old and cheap Canon Powershoot point-and-shoot camera to take our first images of the night sky, as well as the moon. For good results, you will definitely need to get yourself a DSLR camera though. DSLR cameras will allow you to switch lenses, control your exposure time, and save your images in "RAW" format so that you can process them later and really bring out the faint data that you captured. We personally are fans of Canon cameras and haven't used other brands to do Astrophotography.

Here are three great DSLRs you can buy, depending on your budget:

  1. Canon T3i: Around $200 on eBay.

  2. Canon T8i: $699, can find it for $400 or less on eBay

  3. Canon EOS Ra: $2,499, the absolute best for Astrophotography with a DSLR camera. It is built to allow Hydrogen Alpha gas to reach the sensor, but know that lenses can be more pricy for this camera. Sadly, it has been discontinued.

Besides the camera, the only other things you will need are a sturdy tripod, a good lens, and an intervalometer.

For the tripod, our favorite is a Carbon Fiber Tripod. It is incredibly light and is also very sturdy. The intervalometer depends on the camera you purchased, but the one we use is affordable and comes with two types of plugs that should fit almost all Canon cameras.

As for the lens, well, that depends on what you plan to image. We think of three categories when we think of camera lenses: wide, narrow, and telephoto.

A wide lens, like the Rokinon 10mm will allow you to capture the entire Milky Way galaxy (see left image), perfect for time-lapses or cool landscape shots! A narrow lens like the "Nifty Fifty" 50mm f/1.8 from Canon is great for close-up shots of the Milky Way core (see right image), or wide views of deep-sky objects. A telephoto lens will really zoom in all the way on your object and is honestly not great if you don't have a tracker, but you can still get interesting images of planets with their moons for example!

What targets should you image if you don't have a star tracker? Without a star tracker, you are very limited to what you can image, although it is not impossible to get great images of fainter objects if your lens is fast!

The Andromeda Galaxy Astrophotography without a telescope

The Andromeda Galaxy is the easiest galaxy to photograph. It is very large, bright, and looks impressive! This object is best captured with a lens that is between 50mm and 85mm of focal length. On the left is our image of M31 untracked using our 50mm lens. It is best photographed in Fall.

The Orion Nebula Astrophotography without a telescope

Another target you can attempt is the famous Orion Nebula. This is also a large and bright object that is very easy to photograph. Make sure to watch the video below, where we explain how to photograph deep-sky objects with just a camera, lens, and tripod, and show you lots of images taken with this equipment!

The image on the right was taken with our 300mm telephoto lens.

What you need to remember when doing untracked astrophotography is your maximum exposure time without getting star trails. With no tracker, your camera stays still and does not "follow" the stars. This means you cannot take long exposures especially if using a medium to long focal length lens.

The most basic way to calculate your longest possible exposure before getting apparent star trails is by doing the following math:

500/focal length of the lens = maximum exposure time If you are using a 50mm lens, you would do: 500/50mm = 10 seconds. An easy way to remember this equation is by calling it "The 500 rule". A variant, the "600 rule" is also popular, but we prefer using 500 over 600.


Astrophotography with a DSLR camera, tripod, and tracker

Imaging with just a camera and tripod is great and will help you get familiar with the night sky and get yourself accustomed to this hobby. But what will greatly improve your results and take you to the next level is using a star tracker.

Star trackers are much less expensive than German equatorial mounts, but that doesn't mean they can't do the job! They are also much smaller and portable.

There are two star trackers that dominate the market, the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro and the iOptron Sky Guider Pro. Both have a similar size, payload capacity, and cost. Their main difference is their color :)

With a Star Tracker, you will be able to take much longer exposures, no matter the size of your lens! It will also teach you about a crucial aspect of astrophotography: polar alignment.

A good polar alignment (meaning the tracker/mount points exactly at Polaris, the North star) will allow you to track the stars for a long period of time before experiencing star trailing. With star trackers, the one thing that will affect how long you can track the stars (besides a great polar alignment) is the weight of your instrument. A heavy camera, with a heavy lens attached, will have a significant effect on what maximum exposure time you can do. Some star trackers have a port where you can plug in a guide camera and guide using PHD2. This will definitely help if you intend to use a huge lens on a tracker.

Usually, we don't bother with guiding when using our star tracker, and we can still achieve 3 to 5-minute exposures without trailing with our Canon 7D Mark II and 50mm lens.

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro, with a DSLR camera attached
The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro, with a DSLR camera attached

Astrophotography with a DSLR camera and a telescope

This is how you can really get close-up images of your favorite deep-space objects. Imaging the night sky with a telescope has a much steeper learning curve than imaging with a camera and lens only.

Telescope under the Milky Way

Now, several pieces of equipment have to work together in order to produce great results, and there is also much less room for mistakes. Your tracking/guiding will have to be accurate, or star trailing will become much more apparent due to the higher focal length. You will also need to ensure the back-focus between your camera and the instrument is perfect if you do not want elongated stars on the edges of your images.

This might sound scary, but imagine learning this 10 years ago when there were zero tutorial videos on YouTube! Today, the internet is filled with instructive websites that will teach you everything about astrophotography from beginning to end. If you feel ready to start imaging with a telescope, take the time to learn and do not be afraid to make mistakes on the field. The more you practice, the faster you'll learn.


Using a modified camera for Astrophotography

Is it worth it to modify a camera for astrophotography?

This is a question that often comes up from beginner astrophotographers who wonder if they can get more out of their current DSLR or mirrorless cameras.

Astro-modded cameras, whether they are DSLRs or mirrorless, are much better than unmodified cameras when imaging most deep-sky objects, and are really excellent at getting stronger signal from emission nebulae. This is because modded cameras are much more sensitive in several wavelengths but especially in the hydrogen-alpha wavelength.

Comparison image of a nebula astrophotography stock dslr vs modded mirrorless camera

Above is a picture of Barnard's Loop showing a comparison shot between an unmodified DSLR camera (left) and a modified mirrorless camera (right). The stock version is 3.6 hours of total exposure time, while the modified camera image is only 1 hour!

The cost of upgrading to a dedicated astronomy camera is often greater than the cost of modifying a DSLR camera. The main advantage of astronomy-dedicated cameras is that they are cooled, which will give you much less noise, especially during hot summer nights. But we cannot hide the fact that astro-modded cameras also do an excellent job at capturing fantastic images of deep-sky objects. The main advantage astro-modified cameras have over astronomy-dedicated cameras is their ease of use. Unlike astronomy cameras, modded DSLR/mirrorless cameras retain their LCD display, playback feature, and actual buttons.

So the question you need to ask yourself is: "Am I ready to sacrifice the ease of use of my current camera in order to get a cooled astronomy camera?". If the answer is "no" and you want to keep astrophotography as simple as possible for the next year or more, then consider getting your camera modified instead of purchasing a cooled camera.

The company we suggest using, if you decide to get a modded camera, is Astrogear. We have tried a camera from them and were blown away!

You can either ship your current mirrorless or DSLR camera to them for the astro-conversion service, or you can purchase a pre-modded camera.

Be sure to read our full guide about astro-modified cameras which also includes a video for you to watch. You will learn much more about using modified cameras for astrophotography.


How we got Started

We have a full in-depth post about our entire "Astrophotography story" that talks about how we got started and everything major that has happened for us over the years. But let's quickly summarize how we got started in this post anyway! In 2015, we realized that a short drive out of Las Vegas allowed us to escape most of the light pollution. We took a drive out of the city and observed the stars together from a Bortle 4 zone. It was a fantastic night.

Messier 45 The Pleiades through binoculars
The Pleiades through binoculars

After that, we decided to buy a pair of binoculars, the Orion 20x80 Astronomy binoculars and decided to try imaging the stars through this instrument with our old Point and Shoot camera.

This did not work well, as you can see on our first image of the Pleiades… Yep, it's pretty terrible, but it's there! It was great to observe the stars, clusters, and even galaxies through these, but not to do astrophotography.

We then attempted to take a picture of the moon through the binoculars, and it actually turned out pretty fantastic!

The Moon photographed with a point and shoot camera and binoculars
The Moon photographed with a point and shoot camera and binoculars

Today, you could most likely get a better result using your phone :) Although besides for the Moon, these attempts at deep-sky astrophotography were a bit ridiculous, it immediately made us fall in love with Astrophotography!

In October of the same year, we went ahead and purchased an old Canon t3i on eBay. Our very first DSLR camera! We spent days and days on Stellarium learning about the night sky, and decided to once again go out to the desert. This was the first time we were able to capture the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way, and it was an incredible experience. As you can see we did not even know how to focus correctly!

Next, we decided to buy a Star Tracker and later a full telescope rig. You can read the full Astrophotography story post to learn more about our story.


Our Very First Image of the Night Sky

Looking back at our very first photograph of the night sky, it looked very… boring. We can see a few stars here and there, but nothing is going on. It's as if someone dropped their cheap camera on the ground and the shutter activated on impact while the camera was on a random part of the sky.

Night sky with stars
Our very first photograph of the night sky

Now if we look at our first picture of the night sky with a DSLR camera... That is a different story.

This is the very first nighttime photograph we took with our Canon t3i. You can obviously see the Milky Way, but there are a few issues here.

Milky Way out of focus

  1. The photo is all blurry

  2. The stars look slightly elongated

  3. The foreground does not look straight

There are several things we could have done to obtain a better image, and we're going to tell you now! Here are a few tips we'd like to give you for your first image of the night sky:

  1. Make sure you know how to focus your lens properly! This is actually very easy, just aim your camera at a bright star, zoom in digitally as much as you can (usually x10 for most DSLRs) and rotate the focuser ring on your lens until the star appears as small as possible. That's it, you're in focus!

  2. Apply the 500 or 600 rule. We talked about it before, but ensure your exposure time isn't too long for your lens or your stars will be elongated.

  3. Preferably, make sure your foreground isn't crooked, just so it looks more natural :)

  4. Use an ISO number between 400 and 3200. This depends on the quality of your camera. For the Milky Way, we like to crank up the ISO to 1600 or sometimes, even more, when it is very cold outside. If the air is warm, try to keep it low or the noise in your image will be insane.

  5. Use the fastest possible f/ratio your lens will allow. The lens we used for this shot is the stock Canon 18-55mm f/4.5 lens, so we had no choice but to use an f-ratio of f/4.5. If possible, try to go low like 1.8 or 2.8 if your lens allows it. If the stars on your corners appear triangular, increase that number a little bit to fix that.

  6. Use an intervalometer or a timer. To ensure you do not shake your camera when it is taking a picture, you can either use an intervalometer or simply add a 2-second timer in the camera settings.

Now, go take your first picture and come back here to show us in the comments, we'd love to see it!


The Bortle Scale: Understanding and escaping light pollution

Light pollution is a never-ending growing concern for astrophotography. Every light you see outside, big or small, creates pollution that washes out the wonders of the night sky. This is why you can only see a few stars if you look up at night in any major city, whereas you can see hundreds or thousands of stars when looking up from a remote location far from any civilization.

In Astrophotography, it is very important to "escape" this light pollution by driving away from it as much as you can. We typically drive about one hour away from Las Vegas (Class 9) into the desert to reach a "Class 4" zone on the Bortle Scale.

The Bortle Scale visualized
The Bortle scale visualized - SkyGlowProject

The Bortle scale is a great way to find out where you are on the scale of light pollution, which ranges from Bortle 9 (most polluted) to Bortle 1 (Darkest possible sky). You can find out the scale of any place on earth using the following map although it is only updated once every 5 or 10 years. If possible, try to locate the closest dark site to you and make it your new imaging spot! Our backyard is in a Bortle 9 zone.

Thankfully, many targets in the night sky, mostly emission nebulae, can be photographed even under harsh light pollution, thanks to great narrowband filters that block most of the broadband light.

Believe it or not, some of our best images were taken from our heavily light-polluted backyard here in Las Vegas, using narrowband filters. The images below are proof that you can do Astrophotography from the city! You can click on each of them to open up our full blog post and learn more about how we photographed each image. Sadly, some types of deep-sky objects like galaxies are really difficult to capture even with good light pollution filters.

To learn more about the effect of light pollution, read our full post about it:


Our very first Astrophotography rig

Earlier in this post, we listed what we believe is a fantastic first rig, but what was OUR very first astrophotography setup?

When we decided to purchase a telescope, we decided to go "all in" and use all our savings to get something that would last us for years to come, and we do not regret it! We were really set on a reflector telescope, which worked out in our favor as high-quality Newtonians are usually much more affordable than their refractor counterparts.

Antoine and Dalia Grelin with a telescope

We started out with the following:

  • The Telescope

After weeks and weeks of research, we went with an 8" Newtonian telescope! A fast astrograph reflector with a price tag of $499 (at the time). You can read and watch our full review of this telescope HERE!

  • The Mount

The mount is the most important and most expensive item in the list. We first added the Orion Sirius mount to our cart. It is a fairly "affordable" mount compared to the others and has tons of great reviews. Right before making our purchase, we had second thoughts and decided to spend a little more money to be safe in the long run. We went with the Orion Atlas EQ-G which has a higher payload than the Sirius. We loved this mount but stopped using it once we got the ZWO AM5.

  • The Camera

We already talked about the camera, which was at the time the Canon T3i which we bought used from eBay. A great affordable camera for beginners although today we recommend getting the latest version of the Txi series.

  • Auto-guiding

We purchased a 50mm guide scope and a guide camera. There were a few other pieces we bought that day, like a coma corrector, a Bahtinov mask, and a laser collimator. You can learn more on our Full Equipment post.


Equipment Upgrades Over Time

A well-known fact about Astrophotography is that you can NEVER STOP SPENDING!

Space is huge. It is almost impossible to "run out" of targets to image, because there are thousands and thousands out there! With that said, after a few years into the hobby with the same equipment, you might at some point feel like you have "plateaued", meaning you cannot get better images with your current gear.

...And this is when you start looking at new cameras, telescopes, and mounts online, as well as your bank account.

As we stated earlier, the mount you initially chose to purchase should last you many years and you should not feel like you need to upgrade it even if you decide to attach heavier equipment to it. There are three main products you might want to upgrade to get better images:

  • The camera

  • The telescope

  • Accessories to make your life easier

Upgrading the Camera:

Starting Astrophotography with a DSLR camera is great, and recommended, but you will at some point want to get an astronomy-dedicated camera. The main feature of such cameras is that they have a cooling system. This allows the camera sensor to reach temperatures of -10C, -20C, or even lower and almost completely eliminate noise. The drawback is that they need to be plugged into both a power source and a laptop, and have a steeper learning curve than DSLR cameras. Also, in case you didn't know, astronomy-dedicated cameras do not have an LCD display. They look like the image below.

Astronomy dedicated camera

There are two main types of astrophotography cameras:

  • One-Shot Color

These have a similar sensor as a DSLR camera and are pretty easy to use. The pictures are in color.

  • Monochrome

Those cameras shoot in black and gray, and the use of color filters is required to obtain a color image during processing. Monochrome cameras are more difficult to use because you will need a filter wheel and several filters to use it. There are several types of filters, broadband and narrowband.

Broadband filters are:

  • L (Luminance)

  • R (Red)

  • G (Green)

  • B (Blue)

Narrowband filters are:

  • HA (Hydrogen Alpha)

  • SII (Sulfur II)

  • OIII (Oxygen III)

Galaxies, clusters, and a few types of nebulae are most often shot in LRGB. Emission nebulae and a few other objects are best shot in Narrowband. Narrowband is also great when shooting from light-polluted areas.

Whichever camera you decide to upgrade to, know that the learning curve is steep but short. We upgraded from our DSLR camera directly to a cooled monochrome camera, and only ran into a few issues at the beginning while learning. Although narrowband filters are excellent if you have to image from your light-polluted backyard, know that you can also purchase a duo-band, tri-band or quad-band narrowband filter to use with your One-Shot-Color camera or DSLR, which will allow you to shoot in narrowband without a monochrome camera.

If you need some tips when upgrading from a DSLR camera to an astrophotography dedicated camera, the video below might be useful!

Upgrading the Telescope: This will depend on what telescope you started with. If you started with a low-quality instrument, one that gives you terrible chromatic aberration, for example, you will definitely want to upgrade to a better product as soon as possible.

If, like us, you are very satisfied with the first telescope you purchased, just keep it for the long term! The only reason why you'd want to get a new one is because you would like a different field of view to target a wider range of objects.

On the left, M45 at 800mm FL. On the right, the same object at 344mm FL.

Our first telescope was an 8" Newtonian telescope: A pretty bulky reflector telescope with a focal length of 800mm. The second telescope we added to our equipment was a small refractor telescope that was portable and light. The focal length was 344mm. It is great to have two very different instruments as both can serve different purposes and be used for different targets. If your first telescope was a small wide-field telescope and you now want to get a second one, get a larger one that has a longer focal length, or the other way around!

Upgrading your accessories: Another thing you might feel like upgrading is your accessories. Better accessories will make your life easier and can sometimes be difficult to live without! The first accessory that comes to mind is the Polemaster from QHY, which allows you to polar align very accurately in seconds. Another one would be the Pegasus Powerbox, with which you can "divide" power into all your gear with only one cable coming from the battery. An electronic focuser is also a great tool to have as it allows you to focus your telescope automatically from software. Lastly, another example of an excellent accessory is the ASIAir from ZWO. With it, you can control your mount, cameras, and more from your phone or tablet.


How to connect your DSLR camera to a telescope?

One of the first questions beginner astrophotographers ask google when they receive their telescope is "How to attach a DSLR to a telescope?". Below, we will explain the most common way to connect the two, but make sure to check out our full tutorial post and video about this subject where we go over several different scenarios on attaching a camera to different types of telescopes.

In both cases below, you will need to purchase a T-Ring. It is a thin, affordable metal ring that replaces your camera lens. It has a thread on the other side allowing you to screw in in other adapters. Make sure to get the right T-Ring for your camera depending on the brand you are using.

If you own a Newtonian reflector:

The most common way to attach your DSLR camera to a fast astrophotography reflector telescope is to use a coma corrector. A coma corrector screws into the T-Ring on your camera, and directly attaches to your telescope's focuser. Coma correctors are used to correct the "coma" or bad shape of the stars in the corners in your images which appear when using a fast reflector (usually f/5 or faster).

If you own a refractor telescope:

This is similar to a reflector telescope as you just have to replace the coma corrector with a field flattener. Field flatteners are used to ensure all the stars in your images look round and pinpoint, and are needed with almost any type of refractor telescope. Petzval refractors, like the Askar FRA300 Pro, have a built-in corrector and so you can just attach the camera directly to the focuser using only the T-Ring.


How to use an intervalometer

An intervalometer is a small device that allows you to control your camera's exposure time, delay, number of shots, and more. It can be wired or wireless. We use a wired intervalometer as those are usually more affordable.

To use an intervalometer, simply plug it into the camera, and make sure you are in "BULB" or "MANUAL" mode to use it. For Astrophotography, it is usually better to be in BULB as it will allow you to take very long exposures.

Most intervalometers have just a couple of buttons to change the mode, and a directional arrow pad to increase or decrease the numbers on the display. For Astrophotography, we mostly care about two modes:

DSLR Intervalometer

  • The Exposure Time: We can set this to any number of seconds we'd like. For example 30 seconds, 600 seconds, or even more!