Astrophotography Gear Recommendations

When I first thought about how to write this article, I wanted to try to come up with price brackets for different budgets. However, I could not come up with any decent combination that was under $1000. In all the years I have been enjoying this hobby, there is one constant principle that I have learned, and that is “Don’t go cheap”. It makes sense to start out small until you gather experience and skill or to determine whether or not the hobby is for you. If you try to put together an inexpensive setup, say less than $1000, you will end up disappointed. There is a pretty steep learning curve to begin with, but in this hobby, inexpensive is the same as ineffective. You will end up being frustrated with your results, and probably give up entirely. The result will be the same as throwing your money down the drain. High-quality equipment will give much better results and can make this hobby both fun and almost automatic in terms of setup and execution of an imaging plan.


My recommendation is to start with one of the all-in-one units that can give satisfying results without breaking the bank. They can also greatly reduce the effort and possible frustration that beginners often experience. Each one can be had for less than $1600 and can be a great (and affordable) entry point for anyone with little or no experience. I recommend either the Dwarf II Smart Telescope, the Celestron Origin Telescope, or the SeeStar S50, all of which are affordable and capable of getting decent results. For just a bit more you might consider the Vaonis Vespera II Smart Telescope ($1599) which has more advanced features.


I can almost guarantee that once you get your feet wet, you will be hooked. This is where my recommendation is heading: putting together a solid, yet still affordable setup that can last for years and give you incredible results with little effort. Let’s get started!


The Mount

My recommended mount, the ZWO AM3 Strain Wave Mount


Many people would think about starting with the telescope or the camera. I would argue that you could have the best camera and telescope in the world, but if the mount was not good quality, your results would not be good. I think the mount is one of the most, if not the most, important component. Proper tracking and guiding are essential to getting pinpoint stars and the best detail possible.

My top recommended mount is the AM3 Strain Wave mount from ZWO ($1798). This mount is one of several in a new generation of mounts known as strain wave or harmonic drive mounts that use a novel gear mechanism that allows for more precision and less backlash. They also tend to weigh less and have a higher capacity. This particular mount weighs only 17.5 lbs (8.3 kg) including tripod and counterweight, yet it can carry a load of 17.5 lbs without counterweight and 28.5 lbs with counterweight. Other excellent alternatives:

Mount Options

· The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R pro 6 ($1699) is a stalwart in the equatorial mount category. Including tripod, it weighs 54.5 lbs and has a capacity of 44 lbs. Check out my review

· The iOptron CEM 26 ($1298) is also an excellent choice from a high-quality manufacturer. It has a capacity of 26 lbs (12 kg) and the mount weighs only 10 lbs.

· Each of these mounts have larger versions capable of higher capacity. Check out my review of the iOptron CEM70


The Telescope

My recommended telescope, the ZWO FF80 APO


Since many affordable cameras now have a full-frame sensor, it is important to consider the image circle (diameter of the illuminated image) before buying the telescope. The diagonal measurement of a full-frame sensor is approximately 43mm. You want to buy a telescope with an image circle at least this large. Many telescopes do not indicate how large the image circle is and therefore should not be considered suitable for quality astrophotography. The image circle is not the only consideration, however, as you should also consider the dimensions of the flat-field. This means that focus should be maintained from one corner to another. Telescopes labeled “astrographs” or with a Petzval design usually have flat fields right out of the box. Others may have a large image circle but require a separate field flattener to achieve the best photographing results.

One other important consideration is what your intended targets are. There are a multitude of types and sizes of objects out there. Small objects like galaxies require higher magnification (or smaller field of view) which translates into longer focal lengths. These long focal lengths are best achieved with telescopes that have folded light paths like catadioptrics (Schmidt-Cassegrain is a good example). They tend to have focal lengths of 1000 mm or more, even over 2000. If you want to capture larger objects like nebula or our own galaxy, the Milky Way, try to keep the focal length less than 1000mm. You might want to go even shorter for very large objects. Keep in mind that the image circle size is still important, no matter which scope, although it is less important for very small objects, since they will only take up the center of the imaging chip and will not go all the way to the edges.

With the above in mind, my recommended scope is the ZWO FF80 ($1499) refractor. It has an acceptable focal ratio of 7.5 and its Petzval design has a flat field and an image circle of 44mm. Excellent options include other refractors (refractors are not the only option, but these are all high-quality refractors):

Telescope options

· The Askar 80PHQ ($1495) and Askar 107PHQ ($2495) are both excellent choices. Each scope uses a quadruplet lens combination to achieve a flat field image circle of 44mm and are considered astrographs.

· The William Optics RedCat 61 ($1598) is a highly popular refractor with an impressive Petzval design and a respectable focal ratio of 4.9. This scope produces a flat field in an image circle of 46mm.

· The Askar 103APO ($999) uses a triplet lens arrangement and is not considered an astrograph. But it has a novel design allowing for multiple focal lengths, and with an optional field flattener, it can achieve a flat field across a full-frame sensor.



My recommended autoguiding camera, the ZWO ASI 174mm mini


As good as the above mounts are, even the best will need some corrections over the course a several-minute exposure. Conventional wisdom used to be that the guide scope had to be at least 1/3 to ½ the focal length of the main scope to achieve good results. This is no longer the case. My main telescope is the William Optics FLT 120 with a focal length of 780mm. I get superb guiding with the combination of a ZWO ASI174mm-mini camera ($399) and a William Optics 50mm Uniguide scope ($171) with a focal length of 200mm.




Let’s not forget about the equipment you will be using to capture your images. Check out my post on recommended astrophotography cameras.


Putting it all together


There are several other considerations when it comes to budget. You have to know if the mount includes a tripod. Will you need to buy a laptop or tablet to control the scope? Will you need software to control an imaging session or to process the images (there are free versions of just about any of these)? These could potentially be extra expenses. But if you consider everything, buying quality affordable equipment (without choosing the absolute highest-end equipment) will almost guarantee to minimize the frustration that can accompany the learning curve of astrophotography. Someone once told me “Buy nice or you’ll end up buying twice”. Be sure to check out my review of the Dwarf II Smart Telescope, the Celestron Origin Telescope, the See Star S50, or the Vespera II from Vaonis

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