Lightweight Astrophotography

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Chris Hendren has had a lifelong fascination with the stars which has become a bit of a photographic obsession. Here he explains why after all the heavy equipment he used so far, he now enjoys a lightweight system

My name is Chris Hendren, and I am an addict: not the kind that you normally hear your parents warn you about when you are a child, but rather an addict in pursuit of ever better night sky photography. For the last decade and a half, I have been trying to find the right balance with my hobby. This has led to me going in several different directions with my equipment purchases as I try to check off boxes on the list in my head. Working at OPT in Oceanside, California – otherwise known as the astronomer’s toy store – has only deepened this addiction by having all the gear I want in sight at all times, which has got me in trouble more than once. I wanted an advanced tracking setup for high resolution imaging through a telescope, I wanted a motorized time lapse rail, and I wanted a smaller setup with a second astronomical camera to increase my productivity. Over years of gear acquisition, I reached these goals but found that a lot of the clutter got in the way of the original plan.

I have said on more than one occasion that the definition of insanity is to spend hours driving out to the darkest spot you can find and blind yourself staring at a laptop screen all night long.

Lightweight Astrophotography

After many years of collecting ever more advanced imaging equipment that became ever more complicated to set-up and tear down on a nightly basis, I began work on a remote observatory out in the eastern California desert with a permanently mounted telescope and cooled astronomy camera. It has been a work in progress these last few years, but when that goes live, I will achieve my goal of being able to image any clear night I want, regardless of work schedule and without fuel cost. That gets me high quality image data on demand, but I lose part of my connection to the process by not physically standing out under the stars and staring at the wide-open skies, while the camera is collecting photons from distant stars and galaxies. I lose some of the reality of it all by not really being there, and I give up a good part of the sense of fun and wonder that got me into this hobby and reignited my love for the outdoors.

I still regularly get an itch to leave the complexity of this modern world behind for a while and escape to some distant wild place, where I can see the sky as it was meant to be seen. Many people forget that the natural world does not disappear after the sun sets, and that there really are more than a couple of dozen stars in the sky. Even when camping, I will often see people who build up a huge campfire and use the brightest artificial lights they can pack, seemingly scared of the dark or at least immune to the wonder of the Milky Way and countless stars stretched across the sky overhead. Even with those annoyances, I can usually find a spot down the road and off the beaten path, a little way to set up a camera (or two) and try to grab as much starlight as possible during the nighttime hours.
I did say I was an addict, didn’t I? If a month goes by without me getting out at least once, I get a sort of cabin fever. A trip to Joshua Tree National Park, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley or another distant locale, far from city lights and distractions feels like a sweet escape.

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I needed to find a way to make those escapes happen more regularly and allow my photography to be more productive. The clear solution was to lighten the load and minimize the huge amount of gear I was taking out. The next step was to get back to basics with my trusty full-frame Canon DSLR and a few fast prime lenses from 12mm-85mm focal length, which allowed me to capture the light quickly and without need for a complicated guiding setup.

For many of the pictures with lenses 24mm wide or wider, and exposures of 30 seconds or less, I have found that a tripod is sufficient. However, for longer exposures and focal lengths, I needed something to counteract the rotation of the earth to prevent the stars from trailing. The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer was the key – a tracking mount small enough to fit on a light photo tripod but sturdy enough to carry my DSLR and accurate enough to freeze the motion of the stars with a lens up to 200mm in focal length. Four AA batteries will run the mount for a few nights, though I always pack a spare set of batteries if the nighttime temperatures are low, or if I have not changed them recently.

Lightweight Astrophotography

This mount is small but well thought-out by the designers. The built-in polar scope and optional geared equatorial wedge helps in attaining an accurate alignment to the North pole using simple adjustments or a couple helpful smartphone apps. An optional camera bracket and counterweight system allows me to balance my camera with heavy lenses and gives me a couple spots to attach a ball head if I want to use a second camera at the same time. All the above, besides the tripod, fit into a small metal box purchased from a local hardware store, and the whole thing is much smaller and a bit lighter than a typical 300mm f/2.8 lens.

Because of its portability, I travel with this setup almost every time I go out exploring into the countryside with the intent of taking photos after dark, and it is a joy.

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