A Beginner Astrophotography Kit

Let’s talk about the bare minimum of what you will need to photograph the Milky Way.

Astrophotography doesn’t require all that much equipment and it’s likely that you already have most of the items in this list. I usually only pack these select few items in my camera bag when I go out to photograph the Milky Way and rarely bring anything extra. The simpler the kit, the less you will need to worry about. So here are the essentials with some of my recommendations to those just starting out:

1. Digital SLR or Interchangeable Lens Camera Body

beginner-astrophotography-kit-camera

Most people reading this article will probably already have a digital SLR or some other interchangeable lens camera. Luckily a camera is the most expensive thing you need for astrophotography aside from a lens. The very best bang for the buck will be a digital SLR with a 4/3, APS-C or full frame sensor size.

The choice of brand really doesn’t matter all that much. If you’re just starting out, I almost always suggest the two biggest brands: Canon or Nikon. Both of these companies make excellent cameras and each has huge swaths of devoted users and expansive online communities to help you along. That said, any of the other major brands are excellent. Sony, Pentax, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, or Samsung: they all make great cameras and pretty much any of them will work great.

When picking a camera, I particularly prefer cameras with tilting displays so that it’s easier to see the screen when using it low to the ground.

I’m currently using a Sony a7S.

Best of the Best: Sony a7S, Canon 6D, Nikon D610
Affordable Excellence: Fujifilm X-T1, Canon 70D, Canon 7D, Nikon D7100
Beginner on a Budget: Canon T5i, Nikon D5300, Sony a6000

2. Wide Angle Lens

Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 UMC Fisheye II

The Milky Way is really really big.  Like huge. The easiest way to capture it is to use a wide angle lens that will allow you to frame a large portion of the sky. On APS-C cameras, stick with a lens with a focal length of 24mm or shorter. On full frame cameras: 35mm or shorter, and on 4/3 sensors: 17mm or shorter.  The shorter the focal length, the wider the field of view.

That 18-55mm kit lens that probably came with your camera? That lens is just fine to start with. When zoomed out to 18mm, it has a pretty wide field of view and should be able to capture a significant portion of the Milky Way.

For even better results, you’ll probably want a “fast” lens with a low f/number rating. I usually recommend lenses with an f/number rating of f/2.8 or lower. The lower the number, the larger the aperture of the lens and the more light that it can collect for exposing the dim stars in the night sky. Check out my guide on how to pick a lens for milky way photography to learn more about fast lenses. My favorite lens for full frame cameras is still the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4.

Best of the Best: Sigma 18-35mm/1.8, Sigma 35mm/1.4, Rokinon 24mm/1.4, Nikon 14-24mm/2.8
Affordable Excellence: Tokina 11-18mm/2.8, Rokinon 12mm/2.0, Rokinon 10mm/2.8Rokinon 16mm/2.0, Rokinon 35mm f/1.4
Beginner on a Budget: Rokinon 14mm f/2.8, Rokinon 8mm f/3.5 Fisheye, Rokinon 8mm f/2.8 Fisheye II

3. Tripod

beginner-astrophotography-kit-tripod

Anyone thoroughly interested in photography should invest in a decent tripod. For astrophotography it’s essential. You only need one, and it’s likely that a good tripod will outlast all of your other camera gear.

There are probably a million tripods to choose from, but there are a few things you should look for when choosing one for astrophotography:

First, I recommend tripods paired with a ballhead. Avoid tripods with panheads at all cost, they’re a pain to frame your shot and have a more limited range of motion than a ballhead.

Secondly, the tripod should be stiff and stable. Make sure that you’re not too close to exceeding the recommended load capacity of the tripod and consider one made of carbon fiber rather than aluminum. Carbon fiber is stiffer and lighter than aluminum so it’s a great material for tripods. Carbon tripods have also come down in price drastically and are now rather affordable.

Finally, make sure it’s not too heavy. This is the last but arguably the most important consideration in a tripod. If you’re buying your first tripod, I recommend keeping it lighter than 5 pounds. Seriously. Anything heavier will likely be too big and heavy to carry. You should have no hesitation to bring your tripod with you everywhere you go. The lighter the better. I currently use the tiny Sirui T-025X which weighs less than 2 pounds.

Best of the Best: Anything from Really Right Stuff
Beginner on a Budget: Dolica Proline, Dolica Carbon
Compact Ultralight: Sirui T-025XManfrotto BeFree Carbon

4. Headlamp

beginner-astrophotography-kit-headlamp

You’ll need your hands free to handle your camera in dark conditions, so definitely pick up a headlamp. You’ll use it to help with focusing, you’ll use it to help find buttons on the camera, and you’ll need it to avoid tripping over bushes and rocks and critters at night.

Make sure your headlamp has a red “night vision” mode. Once you are initially set up, the red mode will help you retain your night vision for seeing in the dark better and won’t interfere with other stargazers in your group.

I wholeheartedly recommend Petzl Headlamps. I have had headlamps from both Black Diamond and Energizer fail on me at night but I have never had a Petzl fail, knock on wood. They’re weatherproof, bright, efficient, and comfortable. It’s possible to switch directly into red mode on most of their headlamps so you don’t blind yourself when turning it back on and they all have amazing battery life. When they’re batteries run low, they warn you with an indicator light and they automatically switch into a power saving mode to keep the light going for additional reserve hours. I personally use an older version, the Tikka XP2 for all of my astrophotography shoots.

Best of the Best: Petzl Tikka RXP
Affordable Luminosity: Petzl Tikka XP
Beginner on a Budget: Petzl Tikka +

Optional Items

The items above are all you need to start making astrophotos, but there are a couple extra things that can help you out:

Intervalometer

An intervalometer is a remote timer that plugs into your camera. It lets you do two things: make exposures longer than 30 seconds and shoot timelapse sequences. They’re cheap at around $20 and can come in handy with astrophotography.

Cheap and Reliable: Neewer Intervalometer

Star Chart App

As you’re getting started with astrophotography, I recommend using a smartphone app like Stellarium or Sky Guide to help you find the Milky Way. If you’re in a dark enough area, it should be easy to find with your eyes, but an app will make it a much simpler a task.

iOS: Sky Guide, PhotoPills, Stellarium
Android: Stellarium

A Final Check

Make sure your camera battery is charged, your headlamp has some fresh batteries, and you have a couple memory cards handy.

Let’s Get Started!

Once your kit is together, you’re ready to shoot!

Head on over to Astrophotography 101 for lessons on exposure, processing and other astrophotography tips and techniques.
First Time? Check out the How to Photograph the Milky Way lesson.

Disclosure

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. We are also a participant in the B&H Affiliate Program which also allows us to earn fees by linking to bhphotovideo.com.

Learn Astrophotography

Astrophotography 101 is completely free for everyone. All of the lessons are available on the Lonely Speck Astrophotography 101 page for you to access at any time. Enter your email and whenever we post a new lesson you’ll receive it in your inbox. We won’t spam you and your email will stay secure. Furthermore, updates will be sent out only periodically, usually less than once per week.

Help us help you!

Believe it or not, Lonely Speck is my full-time job. It’s been an amazing experience for us to see a community develop around learning astrophotography and we’re so happy to be a small part of it. I have learned that amazing things happen when you ask for help so remember that we are always here for you. If you have any questions about photography or just want to share a story, contact us! If you find the articles here helpful, consider helping us out with a donation.

Donate

Thanks so much for being a part of our astrophotography adventure.

-Ian

Back to Astrophotography 101

100 Replies to “A Beginner Astrophotography Kit”

  1. Greetings from Christchurch New Zealand Ian! Only three hours drive from the best International Dark Sky reserve in this area. lol.
    I first came across your website in early April of this year and your information and lessons have been my guiding light. I am totally addicted to this genre and can’t get enough of it.
    My first lens was a Sigma 24mm 1.8 and that got me totally hooked.
    At the moment I am still using my Sony A57 but managed to score both the Samyang 14mm & then the Samyang 24mm within a month of each other. Both used but in great condition.
    I DO love the Sony’s and am upgrading to an A99 before the end of the year.

    Having a beginner kit has made me be more creative and thoughtful about my composition, technical approach and also in post which I know will serve me in good stead when I finally progress to a full frame. I can never be lazy and just point the thing at the sky and allow the wide angle of view to do all the work. But having good quality and suitable glass on the front does make a big difference.
    I am spreading the word about your website to all my friends and those in my little Facebook group called ‘The AstroAms’.
    Thanks again for such a well crafted, inspiring and incredibly practical website.
    Jono Manning.

    1. Jono! I’m always so enthralled by photographs that come out of your home country, what a spectacular setting for such a dramatic view of the night sky! New Zealand is surely on Lonely Speck’s radar to visit, I personally can’t wait to travel there. Thanks for spreading the word!

  2. I’ve found the ‘dslr remote’ app on android to be a nice companion. It can act both as a remote and intervalometer. It works with the builtin IR blaster in my Galaxy S5. Oh and thanks for your articles, I’m looking forward to the next ones! 🙂

  3. I have a Nikon D5100 and from time-to-time I have thought about buying a full frame camera, in part because of my astrophotography. But, I’ve wondered whether it would make a significant difference in the technical aspects of my night photography. For example, would there be significant reduction in noise? Would there be a significant increase in the number of stars that I could capture in the image? And by “significant” I mean that I would readily notice a difference in image quality. I would be interested in your thoughts on this issue. Thanks.

    1. I’m not an expert but:

      For example, would there be significant reduction in noise?
      Yes, ISO 6400 on a APS-C is very roughly like 3200 on a comparable full frame (due to the roughly 2x bigger sensor area). But if the depth of field is an issue for you (like in some astro landscapes), you loose most of that because you’ll need to step down more.

      Would there be a significant increase in the number of stars that I could capture in the image?
      I doubt it.

      In practice you would probably get a bigger increase in image quality by using a tracker which allows you to use much longer exposures without star trails (but it can be a pain with terrain).

    2. Hadley, In my experience the answer is generally no. As long as all other things are perfectly equal, APS-C cameras tend to shoot images that are just as clean as a full frame sensor. If someone were to ask me, “Should I upgrade to full frame or get a better lens?”, I will usually suggest getting a better lens instead of upgrading to full frame because the improvement in the quality of astrophotos can be much more substantial with a lens that’s faster.

      Where full frame sensors gain an advantage (assuming the same exact lens) is almost purely in field of view. For astrophotography, the larger field of view can help us use a slightly longer shutter speed (about 1.5 time longer) with minimal star trails but overall that’s only a one half stop advantage. It’s not even a true one half stop advantage because sensor noise also increases with exposure time.

      For comparison, aligning and stacking just 4 separate (but identical) exposures together gives roughly the equivalent of a full stop of light. It’s a lot cheaper to just take a few more photos than to upgrade to a whole new camera.

      I’ve been trying to test out lots of cameras lately, especially some Sony stuff lately including their full frame a7S and their APS-C a6000. All told, they both make amazing photographs, regardless of sensor size.

      Jonas has a good point about using a tracker like the Vixen Polarie and that’s something that I may write about eventually. I, however, tend to like to “cheat” a little bit when it comes to adding extra complexity to my kit so I would often rather opt out of not using the Vixen Polarie and instead stack a few extra exposures for noise reduction.

  4. Thanks for this neat breakdown. I would just add that the most important thing in your “kit” when doing this kind of photography is a dark sky… it’s such a pity that here around is very difficult to find a real dark sky.

    Have you ever found an headlamp that is usb rechargeable AND has dimmable (or low power) red light? Otherwise it should be easy enough to hack something together on that Petzl body!

Leave a Reply to Jonas Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.