Even when you look through some of the bigger telescopes at your local astronomy club’s star parties, deep space objects like nebulae and galaxies are just “faint fuzzies”, they look nothing like the crisp, colorful images NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day features.
Fortunately, you don’t need a space telescope to get spectacular images of cosmic objects deep in our galaxy — or beyond. When you attach the DSLR or mirrorless camera that you already have to a telescope, like our top-choice Vixen Optics 2617 ED80SF Refractor, you can capture your own inspiring image of the Heart Nebula or the Pinwheel Galaxy!
- Best for All-Round Deep Space Imaging: Vixen Optics 2617 ED80SF Refractor Telescope
- Best for Budget Astrophotography: Orion 9836 120mm f/5.0 Refractor Telescope
- Best for Intermediate-to-Advanced Astrophotographers: Explore Scientific ED102 Essential
- Best for Combining Photography & Astrophotography: Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM
- Best for Combining Deep Space & Planetary Astrophotography: Celestron Advanced VX 8” Edge HD
- What to Consider When Buying a Telescope for Deep Space Astrophotography
- Frequently Asked Questions
Related post: 6 Best Telescopes for Beginners
The Vixen Optics 2617 ED80SF offers the best balance of optical quality and price for most astrophotographers. The apochromatic design does a better job of focusing on red, blue, and green wavelengths on your camera’s sensor. This minimizes chromatic aberration, the purple fringing caused by lenses bending different colors of light at different angles.
For deep space astrophotography, the ED80SF offers a field of view that lets you capture many of the nebulas in the Milky Way. Getting the full extent of the largest deep space objects, such as the Orion Nebula or the Andromeda Galaxy, may require a full-frame camera.
The f/7.5 ratio between the telescope’s 80mm aperture and its 600mm focal length makes this telescope moderately slow. However, significantly faster light-collecting telescopes can cost thousands of dollars.
Orion’s 9836 120mm f/5.0 Refractor Telescope might be the better choice if you’re just testing the astrophotography waters. It offers good performance for the price and you’ll get fields of view similar to the Vixen Optics ED80SF.
The 120mm aperture of the Orion soaks in even more light than the Vixen. It also has a faster f/5 focal ratio so you need less exposure time for each image. That can come in handy if you aren’t using a high-priced mount.
However, the Orion 9836 uses a doublet design rather than an apochromatic design. Straight out of the camera, you’ll see a little color fringing around bright stars, most of which you can remove when post-processing.
The Explore Scientific ED102 Essential is best for more experienced astrophotographers. The large 102mm aperture and 714mm focal length combine to deliver a moderate f/7 focal ratio. Higher-quality glass and more advanced coatings deliver even brighter, higher-contrast images than the Vixen Optics ED80SF.
You’ll find that this telescope delivers a slightly narrower field of view than the previous two telescopes. However, this only becomes an issue with the largest deep-sky objects. Stitching together images of adjacent parts of the object to create a mosaic lets you capture these extended objects.
Using a telephoto lens rather than a dedicated telescope can justify the cost of high-quality optics, a prime lens such as Canon's EF 300mm f/4L IS USM or similar lenses from your camera’s manufacturer lets you enjoy daytime photography as well as your nighttime astrophotography.
With a fast f/4 focal ratio and high-quality optics, these lenses let you capture wide-field images of deep space objects. You’ll get the further reaches of Andromeda’s spiral arms and the fainter edges of the Orion Nebula within your camera’s frame. You could even fit both the Heart Nebula and the Soul Nebula in a single shot.
Advanced astrophotographers will appreciate the flexibility offered by the Celestron Advanced VX 8” Edge HD. This Schmidt–Cassegrain reflecting telescope has an 8” (203mm) aperture and 2032mm focal length that combine for an f/10 focal ratio. As a result, this telescope is slightly slower than the other telescopes I reviewed above.
However, the 8” Edge HD narrower field of view lets you image smaller and more distant objects. Planetary nebulae and galaxies that smaller scopes barely register swim into view with the 8” Edge HD.
The Celestron Advanced VX 8” Edge HD is also a complete package. In addition to the 8” Edge HD optical tube, you get Celestron’s Advanced VX motorized Go-To mount and other accessories.
What to Consider When Buying a Telescope for Deep Space Astrophotography
Type of Telescope
The all-lens design of refracting telescopes (and telephoto camera lenses) produces bright, high-contrast images. This can reduce the exposure time you need for deep space astrophotography. Refractors are also much easier to set up and maintain than other telescope designs.
Reflecting telescopes rely on mirrors to collect light from the night sky. Compared to refractors, reflectors deliver much larger apertures for the price, but they tend to have much slower f-ratios. You’ll need longer exposure times to get faint details which, in turn, requires a much more stable and reliable mount.
We’ve discussed the trade-offs of telescope specs throughout the article. In general, telescopes with larger apertures, shorter focal lengths, and lower f-ratios require more expensive, high-quality optics to minimize distortion in your images.
In astrophotography, the focal length of your telescope and the size of your camera’s image sensor determine the field of view. For all of the telescopes I’ve mentioned, a full-frame camera will provide a larger field of view than an APSC or Micro Four Thirds camera.
Where You Use Your Telescope
Backyard astrophotographers have the luxury of keeping a large telescope permanently mounted to a heavy mount. You just wheel everything out at night and get started. If your astrophotography requires driving to a dark sky site, however, you’ll need to factor in the portability of your equipment. That’s where small refractors like the Vixen Optics ED20SF have the advantage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Some of the recommendations don’t include mounts, which one should I get?
A good astrophotography mount has to rotate the telescope smoothly and accurately track the night sky all while supporting your telescope, camera, and other equipment. The Sky-Watcher EQM-35 is a good beginner-to-intermediate motorized mount that can support up to 20 lbs. of gear.
Do I have to use a DSLR?
Your existing camera lets you get started quickly, but the sensor’s built-in RGB filters block much of the light your telescope gathers. A monochrome astronomical camera like the ZWO ASI1600MM Pro, combined with external color filters, lets you get all of the faint detail in glowing nebulae.
What deep space objects can I target?
Planning is critical for astrophotography. One helpful tool is the Telescopius’ telescope simulator. Using your telescope’s focal length and the size of your camera’s image sensor, it will show you how deep space objects fit in your system’s field of view.
Do I have to process my astrophotographs?
Collecting your data is only half of the journey in astrophotography. The other half is the image processing needed to tease out the details and colors of deep space objects. Michael Covington’s Digital SLR Astrophotography and Charles Bracken’s Deep-Sky Imaging Primer are handy references that will remain useful even as your skills grow.
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