Astrophotography is about more than just equipment

The Daily Telegraph has a story about British astrophotographer Peter Shah, who’s taken some awfully good photos with amateur equipment. I don’t think the Telegraph knows much about amateur astrophotography: while Mr. Shah’s work is pretty good, comparing it to Hubble imagery is a bit much; there are plenty of astrophotographers out there doing equally good work — or better. (Mr. Shah is, on the other hand, better at promotion: he’s self-published a book of his photos. Nice!)

And calling Mr. Shah’s equipment “modest” is a bit misleading: £20,000 (about $34,000 Canadian) is well within the range of the astrophotographers’ kit I discussed in September. It’s “modest” in the way that spicy food is “medium” — i.e., it’s not synonymous with “mild”: it packs a punch, but it’s not nearly as lethal as some other stuff out there. Mr. Shah shoots with a very good astronomical CCD through an eight-inch astrograph on a Losmandy G11 mount, attached to a concrete pier in a dedicated observatory (the telescope is the cheapest part of this package). This, or something equivalent, is the most that most astrophotographers will realistically be able to aspire to. Fortunately, Mr. Shah’s example shows us that you can do very, very good work with what is good-quality, not-inexpensive but attainable equipment.

My own astrophotography rig is about one-tenth the cost of Mr. Shah’s, but with practice I should be able to do some serious work with it. I’ve been poking through a couple of astrophotography groups on Flickr, and I’ve been amazed at the results some astrophotographers have gotten with inexpensive 80mm apo doublet refractors — which bodes well for me. Short of an imaging light-pollution filter and an autoguider, I already have everything I need in terms of equipment.

On the other hand, I’ve seen some pretty mediocre work — even from people using high-end gear. Owning a 16-megapixel cooled astronomical CCD and a 24-inch Ritchey-Chrétien does not automatically make for good astrophotography, just as owning a Hasselblad or a Leica does not automatically make you a good landscape photographer. Astrophotography is not a point-and-shoot affair: there are a lot of tasks — collimation, polar alignment, accurate focusing, image processing — that take time and practice to get good at. I’m just getting started, and I figure it’ll take me years to exhaust the capabilities of my current gear.

It’s easy to focus on the equipment, but you can accomplish an awful lot with modest gear if you know what you’re doing, and the best gear won’t help you much if you don’t.