Someone asked about the specifics of my exact setup, as they use a 500mm f/4 lens. Here they are, for those who are interested in getting started the same way I have:HARDWAREMount:Orion Atlas EQ-G
The mount is the most important part, hands down. Unless your going to dive head first into scopes larger than 11", you should be looking at the Celestron CGEM or the Orion Atlas EQ-G. I did a lot of research, spent almost a month on it. Celestron mounts are quite pretty, and they are actually manufactured by the same company that manufactures the Orion Atlas (which is the same as the Skywatcher EQ-6). Since it's introduction, however, the Celestron CGEM (and slightly larger sibling CGEM DX) has had some intrinsic gearbox problems, as well as a gear cogging problem. Celestron has done a couple things to fix these issues, however the gearbox is pretty fundamental to the design of the mount. There seem to be no real solution to the issue, which introduces a source of non-periodic error (or rather, periodic error, but at a different cyclic rate than the standard worm gear causes, and when the two converge & diverge, it creates a problem for autoguiding.)
The Orion Atlas is a very good mount. Feature wise, it's a bit better than the Celestron CGEM. It comes with a "dual" saddle built in. There are two main types of dovetails used with astronomy gear: The V-type or Vixen, and the D-type or Losmandy. D-type is much larger, much more stable, than V-type, and is essential for larger gear (like a 500mm f/4 lens.) The Orion always comes with a built-in polar finder scope (its situated in the right-ascension axis, and is used to align the mount itself with the exact celestial pole.) The polar finder scope is an add-on option for Celestron CGEM. The Orion polar finder scope comes with a built-in red LED to help you see the reticule diagram...the Celestron's add-on polar finder does not (although there are guides online that can help you solder in your own onto the mounts control board, if your up for it.)
The really nice thing about the Orion Atlas mount is that there is a good, high quality belt drive for it. Belt drives are what the higher end scopes use. Direct Belt Drive is what the ASA DDM (Direct Drive Mount) line of mounts use, and part of why they have exceptional accuracy and practically no problems with gear backlash. The existence of this upgrade (it costs a couple hundred) is one of the key reasons I purchased an Orion Atlas. I will be adding this upgrade in the future...from what I hear, it greatly smooths out the tracking and allows it to be more precise, with and without guiding. There are also other upgrades for the Orion Atlas, as well as a service called "HyperTuning" offered by DeepSpaceProducts (hypertuning is also available for the CGEM.)
My recommendation is to definitely get the Orion Atlas. When you get the atlas, also search for and buy an "EQDIR" adapter. EQDIR is a special TTL connecting cable that allows you to plug your computer directly into the mount, and control it with software called EQMOD. EQMOD is another bonus for the Orion Atlas that the CGEM does not have...very powerful, very capable software that can do everything the hand controller does, and much more. It also allows "plate solving"...more on that in a bit. (The EQDIR cable costs about $40.) Saddle:ADM D-series Side-by-side "Dual"
ADM makes a number of accessories for astronomy equipment. I purchased the DSBS "Dual", or D-type side-by-side "dual saddle" model adapter so I could mount both my lens+camera as the "telescope", and also use an external automatic guiding setup with it's own lens. I'll get into that in a bit.
There are a number of saddle options, and a number of sbs saddle options. You can get V-type or D-type, or dual which takes both vixen and losmandy dovetails. I chose the dual, so that I would never have to spend more money adapting anything to my mount. It's $50 more expensive, but ultimately, it is going to be worth it, because it gives you more freedom to expand in the future. At longer focal length telescopes, you inevitably need larger guiding scopes. Dovetail:Astro-Tech Losmandy Style 7.9"
I purchased this dovetail plate to attach my 600mm f/4 lens to the ADM DSBS saddle. There are a bunch of dovetail plates on the market. The nice thing about this one is that it has a slot down the middle, rather than a set of pre-spaced holes. The slot is essential to properly attaching your lens to the plate. With other dovetails, you are stuck either sinking your own hole for the second screw, or using a single screw...and THAT is bad news...one screw will not cut it, because as the mount moves the scope to track across the sky, its angle can change considerably...once it gets to a point where it is more parallel to the ground, a lens bolted to the plate with a single screw will easily slip...and that can potentially cause the whole entire setup, mount and all, crashing to the ground. On top of your lens. The overall weight of the entire setup is about 70 pounds...not even a Canon Great White lens would survive that.
Get this dovetail. Then, go to your hardware store, and buy some 1/4"-20 hex head screws with the small round heads that are about 1/2" long. The hex head ones with a small round head are important, because anything else is generally too large to fit into the slot on this dovetail, and will not hold the lens to the plate securely enough. Use those to bolt the dovetail to BOTH screw holes on your lens' foot. Guider:Orion SSAG w/ 50mm Mini Guidescope
For a starter guiding package, you really can't go wrong with the Orion 50mm Mini Guidescope and the Orion SSAG (StarShoot AutoGuider). Don't get roped in by the "delux" version of this, which is about $70 more. All that ads is a helical focusing ring on the scope, however the scope can already be focused in two ways: Either by unlocking the front part that holds the objective and rotating it, then locking it again. Or by sliding the SSAG mini guider (which is really just a webcam sensor packaged with a logic chip that can control your mount through what is called an ST-4 port) in and out of the other end until your focused, then locking it down. Save yourself the $70, just get the Orion SSAG with 50mm Mini scope for $349.
There are other guiding options out there. The only other one I think is worth while is the SBIG ST-i guider
. The SBIG is a higher quality guider, nice and compact, however it is a lot more expensive. Between a scope and the guider itself, you'll probably spend $800. The ST-i is really the option you want to go with if you eventually move to a full blown cooled CCD camera. The SBIG STF-8300M is a great midrange peltier-cooled mono astro cam, and in a package deal, you can get the cam, a filter wheel, as well as an OAG (off-axis guider) adapter that the ST-i plugs into. Off-axis guiding is generally more effective than external guiding, as it observes the sky through the same optical tube your imaging through. That allows it to correct for things like flexure. Flexure is one of the bigger problems with getting very precise guiding (essential at longer focal lengths, not really a problem at 200-1000mm). Flexure is the flexing...the bending and twisting...of an OTA (optical telescope assembly) as it is moved by the mount during tracking. It can result in elongation and wobble of stars that makes them look "unnatural" and "not round".
If you think your really going to get into astrophotography, and figure you'll eventually get a proper telescope (i.e. a Newtonian, SCT, or RC), then you might want to start with the ST-i. You can still attach it to an external guide scope (any smaller refracting telescope will work, or even the Orion 50mm mini guidescope).Misc:
AC Power adapter for your DSLR (for use when your at home)
DC power adapter for your DSLR (for use with a deep cycle battery when your at a "dark sky" site)
DC power adapter for your laptop (for use with deep cycle battery ...)
2-3x DC cigarette plug with positive/negative clamps (for use with deep cycle battery...)
A 20-30 Ah deep cycle battery to power the mount at dark sky sites
A 100 Ah or larger deep cycle battery to power your camera and laptopSOFTWARE
In order to effectively use the equipment above, you need the proper software. You need control software to actually control the camera and any other accessories (such as focusers and filter wheels, of your using them). You need stacking software. You need processing software. You will also need guiding software to make guiding actually work. Finally you will need planetarium software to tell the mount to point at various things in the sky.Control Software:
Sequence Generator Pro
Control software connects to the camera at the very least, possibly multiple accessories like a motorized focuser, robotic filter wheel, and even the mount. You use control software to frame, focus, and set up sequences for imaging. Imaging sequences can be light frames (i.e. 30x240s f/4 ISO 400 with lens cap off), dark frames and bias frames (with lens cap on), and flat & dark flat frames. Certain objects in the sky are exceptionally high dynamic range. Orion Nebula is the best example. Sometimes you need very long exposures, medium exposures, short exposures, and very short exposures, to fully capture the dynamic range. But in astro imaging, each "exposure" is ultimately an integration...a calibrated ((light frame - dark frame - bias frame) / (flat frame - dark frame)) image stack. So for each of those groups of integrations, you have multiple individual light frames, as well as the corresponding dark frames. You don't just take an image and then be done, like you would with normal photography. You can potentially take hundreds of individual frames of the same object, often over the course of several nights, just to make ONE image in the end.
Control software is essential. It takes a LOT of the tedium out of the process. Largely personal preference. I highly recommend looking into BackyardEOS and Sequence Generator Pro.Guiding Software:
In order to guide, you need guiding software. There is really only one option here, PHD2. MaxIm DL, the control software above, also supports guiding, but PHD2 is free and its the de-facto standard. It's highly capable, very easy (the acronym literally stands for "Push Here Dummy"!), and, free. Stacking Software:
Stacking software is the first step in the post-processing stage. You bring in all your light, dark, bias, flat and dark flat frames. You configure the application for stacking. You register, then you stack. Sometimes the last two are part of the same step. Once stacked, you export an unmodified 32-bit TIFF, and your ready for the next step.
DSS, or DeepSkyStacker, is easy and free. Probably best to start there. There are a bunch of options here, with different capabilities for different purposes. Some are better for planetary stacking, some are better for galaxy and nebula stacking. Experiment. Processing Software:
Processing software is what you use to "stretch" your integrations. Calibrating and stacking images into a single integration GREATLY reduces noise, and enhances dynamic range. If you understood the kind of noise levels and dynamic range levels that are fairly common in astrophotography, even the much vaunted 14-stops of DR that you get with a D800 would make you laugh at how pathetic that is!
With a DSLR and a proper stack of dozens or even a hundred deeply exposed frames (several hundred seconds at least), along with dark, bias, and flat calibration, you can have well more than 14 stops of DR. If you were using a multi-stage cooled CCD imager, where dark current noise is in the 0.1e- or less range, after stacking your dynamic range from the darkest bits of dark nebula to the brightest pinpoint peaks of stars could be as much as 20 stops of DR, maybe even more (in which case, your most definitely using 32-bit float TIFF images, which are capable of storing what is effectively unlimited dynamic range, at least for the purposes of mankinds endeavors.
Photoshop is pretty much a given. It's the staple of image processors, for everything. If you are a photographer and do not have PHOTOshop, then your a twit. Get it. You need it.
There are thousands of tutorials, video and article, on the net that cover using Photoshop for processing astro images. There are bunches of PS actions for free and for sale that take care of common tasks that are just essential parts of stretching and enhancing astro images. You really can't do astrophotography without it.
PixInsight is the big 800 pound gorilla when it comes to editing astro images. It brings to the table a whole, broad range of mathematical tools that allow you to process your images in ways Photoshop could never even tough, using advanced algorithms that can deal with noise in ways you never even imagined, extract detail from the black background depths that are so deep you wouldn't have even imagined that you could imagine there being detail there at all. It even offers "pixel math", giving you the ability to apply any kind of algorithm you can imagine to your images, effectively allowing an infinite amount of ways to process, calibrate, color balance, stretch, extract, and otherwise enhance your images. Oh, and beware...it has a REALLY balls-to-the-walls on-crack brain-melding kind of wacked out UI design
that will totally make you go BONKERS for the first few days...but that eventually passes.
Nothing beats PixInsight for astro editing. But you still need Photoshop, because there are still some things Photoshop just does better. You need both of these. (But start with Photoshop.)