What is the best beginners astrophography rig?

Updated: Dec 19, 2021

Now this is a question for the noob and seasoned nerd alike because the best beginners astrophotography rig is basically a travel rig and its essential for old astrofarts like myself to have a great little travel rig...

Travel rigs aren’t just for when you’re going somewhere nice and dark but have little room in the car because of annoying things like kids they are also really the only option when it’s windy because in the wind big scopes especially Newtonians can’t guide accurately enough to be useful. And so with Storm Barra heading to our shores I quickly tested out my two recommended travel scope set ups. Would they work like I hoped they would?

I believed that the star adventurer and a camera lens was the best beginners set up (Detailed link of set up here: https://www.astrobiscuit.com/cheap-and-easy-travel-rig)

And I believed the skywatcher GTI in eq mode with a small refractor telescope was the best rig for those of us who are a bit more experienced (this is what I recommend for the ultimate travel rig )

The lens I am using in the beginners set up is a 30 year old APO TELYT-R 180mm @f3.4 with a william optics uv filter (because I don’t trust this old lens with the high frequency blue wavelengths and instead of a DSLR I’m using an uncooled zwo asi294mc. This colour Astro camera has an APC sized sensor which I’m surprised isn’t used in commercial dslr cameras (although I think Blackmagic’s mini cinecamera uses it) . The difference between this camera and a dslr is that it is easier to control with a computer and is more sensitive although some dslr cameras (like the Sony a7s) come close. It also doesn’t cut out the near ir wavelengths which is important if you’re shooting a nebula full of hydrogen gas but we’re not so I don’t think this test would look too different if you used an unmodded dslr.

The problem I had with this test was two fold. Firstly polar aligning the mount wasn’t as straight forward as I remembered. Polaris didn’t pop out in the polar scope like i remembered it. I think a beginner could easily waste half an hour messing around with polar aligning. And the second problem I faced was finding Andromeda. Now I know where Andromeda is in the sky and my camera was sensitive enough to pick it up with a 1 second exposure and yet I struggled to lock on. In the end I had to swap out the lens with a 50mm which cast a wide enough net to catch Andromeda. Then I centred the galaxy with the adjustable ball head mount and then I put back the 180mm lens and I was good to go. Once set up I took 20 second exposures and the rig worked absolutely beautifully. The only subs I had to throw away were ones where clouds passed through the frame. Truly the star adventurer is a fantastic mount and the result from a few hours in less than ideal conditions are really fantastic. My worry is that polar aligning and pointing at more challenging targets could stump a beginner…

The second rig is a more powerful but technically more challenging set up that actually cost about the same as the beginners set up. At its heart in the Skywatcher GTI mount (configured inEQ mode) my old but lovely tak fs60cb scope with a borg 0.7 reducer and the small but mighty asi178mm camera and a zwo mini filter wheel with baader LRGB filters.

Now the hard bit of this set up happens before you get out in the field. You need to be able to change the firmware in the mount, angle the mount towards the pole, buy weights and a rod to balance the telescope (I talk about setting it up here: https://www.astrobiscuit.com/cheap-and-powerful-travel-rig ) get your head around sharpcap pro software (costs about a tenner and is very easy to use) and get your head around NINA and install astap platesolving software (link to download all Astro software here: https://www.astrobiscuit.com/imaging ). Once set up this rig works like a dream. Polar aligning with sharpcap pro takes minutes. Then you can point to any target – no matter how faint - and NINA will control the mount and find it by taking pics and platesolving. Getting going is much quicker than the 'easy' rig. It really was a revelation. The next thing to worry about is keeping the stars round. This is a rather high magnification set up for a travel scope. Would the GTI mount in eq mode be good enough without guiding to handle the 178mm’s tiny 2.4um pixels. If the mount wobbled by more than a couple of arc seconds during my 20 second exposures the stars would elongate. This was foremost on my mind when I set her off, but what I should have been worried about was the dew because when I came back into the field after dinner the little tak was completely fogged up. Half the subs had to be thrown away and those that remained we’re less than perfect. The result is below. It could have been so much better🙄 The good news is that the GTI performed fantastically and very few subs (like 1%) were lost due to mount wobble.

At the end of the night the wind had died down to almost nothing so I covered the scopes up with a view to taking my flats in the morning. I did not know storm barra was coming. Click this link to see the true horror of what awaited me in the morning! https://www.astrobiscuit.com/post/storm-barra-fells-my-scopes

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