My journey from newbie quality photos using my Smartphone to the amateur quality photo shown above is not standard by any means. Nevertheless, everyone's path to growth is unique and challenged by each other's individual environment. This post is simply to provide anyone looking to improve their photo quality, options. Most of my improvement tips detailed below cost pennies in comparison to the two greater than $500 purchases I have made. The photo is the Pacman Nebula is my latest improvement result. All tips given are options to be used in your decision making decisions. Not requirements. I wish you the best in your journey.
I started several years ago with the purchase of the Orion Astroview 6 telescope and mount. My first photo with my smartphone resulted in the barely perceptible core of Andromeda. I needed a local friend to confirm that I even found Andromeda in that photo. I decided to re-engineer my setup to improve photo quality and learn the night sky. That to me meant figuring out where best to spend significant money. So I experimented.
My first improvement was to take a telescope not designed for Astrophotography and modify it without cutting the OTA or drilling holes.
Link: How I Moved Prime Focus
YouTube Video: Alternative to Achieving Prime Focus With a Reflecting Telescope
In short I designed and 3D printed mirror extensions that allowed me to put a Canon XTi on the Orion Astroview Reflector Telescope. I also 3D printed the Canon t-ring adapter. I went to my local camera shop and asked for any cameras that were damaged. The owner gave me that Canon XTi and I purchased a USB cable to connect it to my computer.
Tip: Sometimes what's trash to someone is really treasure for you. While that camera had damaged memory card pins, it worked great connected to my laptop. I was able to go from less than a second exposure times to 30 seconds.
Tip: Your Local Library will 3D print stuff for you and is very low cost. This means you have access to 3D printing without having to buy the 3D printer. I have made my design free to the public and others have already successfully used it. I will also print and send to you if you ask.
Tip: If 3D printing interests you, tinkercad.com is a free online place to design stuff. Enjoy.
These three tips saved me hundreds of dollars and significantly improved my photo quality. I learned from these changes that the camera makes a big difference. So I planned to purchase a new camera when I was able.
My confirmation of this was after I spent $250 for a well cared for Meade ETX-125 telescope and $100 for a single axis motor drive. While the increased focal length got me closer to objects, the photo quality was still vastly different between cameras and similar between telescopes.
A year later, I purchased from an estate sale the Orion ST-80 ($50) and it came with a green laser pointer. No major improvement to my photo quality and at the time I was frustrated with not having LiveView on the XTi camera. So $200 later I came home with a refurbished Canon T3i. It was worth the expense to get LiveView because it saved time trying to get focused and locating the object I'm capturing. Oh yeah, I also 3D printed Bahtinov masks for all 3 telescopes.
All this time I'm post processing with DeepSkyStacker and Gimp. In my life as an engineer I know that when you put junk in to something you get junk out. So my focus is about the equipment that allows me to put good in to get good out.
So fast forward to 2020. It was time to get rid of the egg shaped stars the litter my photos. I found that using the reticle on the mount was not accurate. I moved on to Drift Aligning and saw improvement, but the stars were still egg shaped. So in came SharpCap ($15), a generic USB Camera ($50) and a 3D printed holder ($1).
Significant photo quality improvement everywhere except the edges. I next had to get rid of Coma. But this was great. I was able to take a mount not considered AP worthy and achieve pinpoint stars in my photos.
Tip: If you're up to it, with a little outside the box thinking and design you can inexpensively solve most of your photo problems. And you may realize that you already have the necessary equipment to make significant improvement with minor changes.
Again, I've made the 3D printer file free to the public and many others have taken advantage of this with their setups. I don't believe in keeping these kinds of opportunities locked up. Walking out at night and seeing space is free to everyone. You've just got to cut through the light and that's where space becomes unaffordable to most.
I've purchased a Coma Corrector for my Astroview telescope. 3D printed a threaded mount for it. Trick here to get the threading is to heat up the print (be careful not to overheat) and the mating part. Press them together and let cool. Viola! You have threads on the 3D print.
Now having spent just greater than $700 over 4 years, it was time to make that camera purchase. Well I didn't, it was a Father's day gift. The ZWO ASI183MC Pro. Here's my data comparison between the Canon T3i and the ZWO camera.
Now we're talking. With this camera I'm seeing details I've never seen outside of other's work. So I'm learning how to use the dedicated astronomy camera and will share what I learn in the future. I did however learn that my camera was defective and I'm waiting for the replacement to arrive. While I wait (because Covid-19 has added months to wait time), I purchased the QHY163C. This camera has performed better than any I've used.
In closing, this is my journey. If it helps you, I'll be grateful. Thanks for reading and remember the sky is only the limit when your mind is unwilling to fly. Go beyond!