When I first started out in deep sky astrophotography, I made myself a checklist to set up my equipment for an astrophotography shoot. If I didn’t do this, I knew I would forget a step and have to start over. I thought it would be good to share this checklist along with some commentary on each step.
This checklist was created for the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Equatorial Mount, but should work for any portable EQ mount. The Polar Alignment process is intended for astrophotographers in the northern hemisphere. The polar alignment process is different for the southern hemisphere.
Find Polaris and Your DSO in the Night Sky
There are several good phone apps that you can use to locate Polaris and your Deep Sky Object (DSO) target. Two of my favorites are Sky Guide and Star Walk 2. Both are good, comparable, and inexpensive ($2.99 at the time of writing).
Once you’ve done a polar alignment a few times, you’ll be able to quickly locate Polaris in the night sky. You can also use star hopping to find your targets in the night sky. I’ll be posting a future blog on that topic.
Find a Location for your Mount in the Yard
You will want a location with clear visibility of your DSO Target for the entire night. You can use one of the above apps or Stellarium to see how your DSO will track across the night sky. Once you done and confirmed your polar alignment, you shouldn’t need visibility to Polaris.
Roughly Align the Polar Scope to Polaris
I usually bend down behind the scope and line up Polaris as close as possible. This will make it easier to find in your polar scope.
Level your Tripod and Mount
Take your time and make sure your mount is as level as possible. You will need a flashlight or your headlamp on white light to ensure the bubble is located as close to center as possible. Some astrophotographers claim the bubble level on the mounts is not accurate. You can confirm the accuracy of the bubble level on your mount by comparing with another level prior to going out for the shoot.
Polar Align your Mount
This is a really important step. The accuracy of your polar alignment and leveling your mount will determine the length of your exposures before you start getting egg shaped stars and star trails. Visit my Polar Alignment blog for more information on that topic.
Turn on the Tracking Mount
Turn the mode dial to the picture of a star for celestial tracking. The Star Adventurer uses 4 AA batteries. Make sure your batteries have enough charge. The Star Adventurer doesn’t seem to drain batteries too quickly. I’ve used the same set for 5 or 6 shoots. But, batteries with a low charge can lead to inaccurate tracking.
Install Mounting Bracket and Camera on the Mount
The dec bracket mount sits over top the Polar Scope in the Star Adventurer. The Polar Scope light comes with an extension to fit over the dec bracket, but I like to do my polar alignment without the dec bracket and camera mount and then reconfirm the alignment after mounting the bracket and lens and balancing the camera and counter weight. I can get the light aligned over the polar scope better without the bracket on the mount.
This is pretty straight forward. I typically mount the bracket on the mount first and then attach the camera or lens to the bracket. For longer focal length lenses, I mount the lens to the bracket instead of the camera for better balance.
Balance the Camera and Counter Weight
You’ll want to balance the weight evenly between the Camera/Lens and the Counter Weight. Loosen the black clutch bracket and rotate the camera and counter weight. Test to see if the weight is balanced between both ends. You can adjust the weight distribution by moving the dec bracket in the mount or adjusting the location of the counter weight.
The intervalometer will plug in one of the ports on the side of the camera. The plug type varies by the make and model of the camera. I found an intervalometer that comes with 6 different plug types so you can use the same intervalometer for multiple cameras.
An intervalometer is great for starting out in Astrophotography but if you plan to continue with this hobby you may want to look into astrophotography image capturing software. You will need to set up your laptop outside for the shoot but it will make focusing, capturing and verifying your images much easier. I’m currently using Backyard EOS for my Canon cameras. There is also a Nikon version called BackyardNIKON.
Reconfirm that the Tripod is Level and Your Polar Alignment is Still Good
After mounting and balancing the camera and dec bracket, I like to confirm that the mount is still level and my polar alignment is still good. Put the extension on the polar scope light, align it over the polar scope and verify the alignment. If the alignment is off, you may need to adjust it using the horizonal and latitude adjustment knobs.
Set the Focus in Your Camera
Autofocus won’t work in photographing the night sky so you will need to manually focus your camera. If your camera is way out of focus you may not see any stars. I usually start near infinity on the distance scale on the lens.
I try to focus on bright stars or patterns of stars that are recognizable (Orion’s Belt). Planets like Jupiter and Venus also work well It is easier to find these stars on the LCD. You can fine tune the focus once you are aligned to your DSO Target.
Align your Camera to the DSO Target
Use your phone night sky apps and star hopping to find your target. You may also want to use a shorter focal length to give more room around your target. This will allow your composition to be more forgiving if you are a bit off target. See my blog on the best DSOs for beginners to target and photograph.
Take Test Shots to Confirm Focus, Polar Alignment, and Composition
You will want to take several test shots to confirm your polar alignment, focus, and composition. You may need to shoot shorter exposures if you see that your stars aren’t round. You may also want to shoot a test shot at a high ISO to confirm your composition.
Written by Martin Belan