Backyard Astrophotography Tips: The Universe Awaits

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Astrophotography can help you feel connected with the cosmos, and you don’t need to travel to remote locations to capture stunning images of the night sky. Can you do astrophotography in your backyard?

Yes! With the right setup and a bit of preparation, your backyard can become your very own stellar observatory. As an experienced amateur astrophotographer who’s spent countless nights under the stars, I’m excited to share my backyard astrophotography tips to help you transform your backyard into an amazing place where you can capture the wonders of the universe.

backyard astrophotography tips

In this guide, I’ll show you how with the right equipment, and some thought and planning, you can make the most of your garden no matter how big or small it is. We’ll discuss how and where to set up your astrophotography gear, how to plan your imaging sessions, and how to manage weather conditions outside. We’ll also talk about how to deal with light pollution and more.

I am going to give you tips from my own experience, based on the many mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned over the years that I have been doing astrophotography. I’m sure that these backyard astrophotography tips will make your sessions less frustrating and more enjoyable. Let’s get started!

Why Backyard Astrophotography?

Ever stare up at a starry sky and feel that you’d like to know more about the cosmos? Well, guess what? You don’t need a fancy rocket or a trip into space to explore the universe. Backyard astrophotography is your ticket to a whole new world, right from your own slice of the night sky.

Think about it. Your backyard, that familiar space for barbeques and lazy evenings, can become a launchpad for astronomical adventures. With a camera, lens or telescope, you can capture beautiful nebulae, colossal star clusters, and even capture the ethereal glow of galaxies far, far away. Suddenly, the night sky isn’t just a pretty picture – it’s a source of discovery.

Backyard astrophotography isn’t just about snagging brag-worthy photos (although, let’s be honest, those are pretty cool too!). It’s about forging a deeper connection with the universe. It’s about the thrill of the hunt – researching celestial objects, meticulously planning your shot, then holding your breath as the camera clicks, capturing photons that have journeyed millions of miles to reach us.

The payoff? An image that’s more than just pixels on a screen. It’s a testament to your patience and technical skill. It’s a window into the vastness that surrounds us, and a journey back in time. And all from your own backyard!

Before you can think about transforming your backyard into the perfect place for astrophotography, you’ll need to get the right equipment. If you’re new to astrophotography, these backyard astrophotography tips on choosing the right equipment will help you decide what to get. If you’re more advanced, you may need tips on upgrading your telescope or other equipment.

Telescopes

Selecting the right telescope is crucial for backyard astrophotography. When I first started, I was overwhelmed by the options. Here’s a breakdown to help you choose:

  • Refractors: These telescopes are known for their excellent image quality and ease of use. They are perfect for beginners and offer great views of planets and the moon. Discover what is the best telescope for seeing planets. They can also be used for deep sky objects and for observing or astrophotography.
  • Reflectors: Offering larger apertures at lower costs, reflectors are ideal for deep-sky objects like galaxies and nebulae. However, they require regular maintenance (collimation). Many reflectors are designed for observation and will not work for astrophotography, unless you move the primary mirror.
  • Compound (Catadioptric) Telescopes: Combining elements of refractors and reflectors, these telescopes are versatile and compact, making them great for astrophotography.
catadioptric telescope
Catadioptric telescope
  • Beginner: Celestron AstroMaster 130EQ. This is a 130mm reflector telescope with an equatorial mount. This is for visual use and will not be suitable for astrophotography. It’s very lightweight and can be used to view the planets, moon, and star clusters.
  • Beginner: Celestron StarSense Explorer DX 102AZ. This a refractor telescope with a system that works with a mobile phone to locate objects. It can be used for basic astrophotography. It has an alt-az mount which is best for visual use but beginners might start with this 102mm refractor with a focal length of 660mm.
  • Intermediate: Sky-Watcher ProED 80mm Doublet APO Refractor. This would be a great telescope to use for astrophotography. You would need to attach it to a good quality equatorial mount to use it for long exposures. The telescope is a good size and has a focal length of 600mm which means it can be used to image many deep sky objects as long as they are not too small. It is well-priced and has a quality focuser to enable you to get sharp images.
  • Intermediate: William Optics RedCat 51 (check on Amazon) (refractor)
  • Intermediate: Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED Triplet APO (refractor)
  • Intermediate and advanced: Celestron Edge HD 8 (Catadioptric)

For backyard astrophotography you want a telescope that is not too big. Unless you plan to have a permanent place where you keep your telescope, such as an observatory or a pier, you’ll need to move your telescope setup indoors and around your garden. This means that the telescope shouldn’t be too big or heavy. This is fine because we don’t need huge telescopes for astrophotography. I am getting great images from a lightweight five-inch (130mm) reflector telescope.

Cameras

The camera you choose can significantly impact the quality of your backyard astrophotography. When I upgraded from my old DSLR (a Canon 600D) to the ZWO ASI533 MCPRO, the difference in image quality was night and day. For the last two years I have been using the ZWO camera and I love how much easier it is to edit my images now as there is far less noise to deal with. I wouldn’t go back to using a DSLR for deep sky objects.

Don’t forget that if you do use a DSLR you should get it modified so that it is more sensitive to hydrogen alpha wavelengths. I noticed a huge improvement when I got my camera modified. It was immediately apparent on the screen of my camera after I shot the Orion Nebula! I could see so much more details in the hydrogen alpha reds of the image.

DSLR vs. Mirrorless vs. Dedicated Astrophotography Cameras

DSLRs: Versatile and relatively affordable. Great for beginners.

Mirrorless: Lightweight with excellent image quality and higher sensitivity.

Dedicated Astrophotography Cameras: Designed specifically for capturing celestial objects, these cameras often have cooling systems to reduce noise.

All of the above are good choices for backyard astrophotography but be aware that there is a large range of prices in cameras. At the budget end, you could use a DSLR camera you already have at home or buy a second-hand model for $100-200. At the medium range, there are dedicated astronomy cameras for $700 and up and at the high end some cameras can cost thousands of dollars.

At this point, you may wish to learn how expensive astrophotography is.

DSLR: Canon EOS Rebel T7i

The Canon EOS Rebel T7i (also known as the Canon EOS 800D) can be a decent choice for beginners in astrophotography, but it has some limitations to consider. Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons:

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Good Image Quality: 24.2 MP APS-C sensor can capture decent detail in deep sky objects.
  • Live View: The T7i features a good live view system with Dual Pixel autofocus, which can be helpful for focusing on stars in magnified view.
  • Variety of Lenses: The Canon EF/EF-S lens mount offers a wide variety of lenses to choose from, allowing you to experiment with different focal lengths for capturing specific celestial objects.

Cons:

  • APS-C Sensor: Compared to full-frame cameras, the APS-C sensor in the T7i has a smaller surface area, capturing less light. This can be a disadvantage for astrophotography, which often requires long exposures to capture fainter objects.
  • Battery Life: The battery life of the T7i might not be ideal for extended astrophotography sessions, especially in cold weather.
  • Limited Dynamic Range: The dynamic range of the T7i might not be as good as higher-end cameras.
Canon EOS Rebel T7 DSLR Camera and two lenses
  • 24.1 MP resolution
  • Built-in Wi-Fi
  • 1080p video
  • 18-55mm and 75-300mm lenses
  • Approx. $600
As an Amazon affiliate I earn commission from this purchase

Mirrorless: Sony Alpha a7 III

The Sony a7 III is a strong choice for astrophotography with its full-frame sensor, low-light performance, and image stabilization. While the cost and learning curve might be higher than entry-level options, the a7 III captures stunning astro photographs. Check on Amazon

Dedicated: ZWO ASI1600MM Pro

The ZWO ASI1600MM Pro is a great camera for astrophotography enthusiasts, offering high-quality images of deep sky objects. However, the cost, learning curve, and need for additional equipment such as a telescope, make it a less suitable option for beginner astrophotography.

Mounts and Tripods

equatorial telescope mount setup
My telescope, DSLR camera and mount

A stable mount is essential for clear, sharp images. When I first started, I underestimated the importance of a good mount, leading to many blurry photos. 

The first mount I had was the one that came with my first telescope, the Celestron 130slt.

There are two kinds of mounts, Az-Alt and Equatorial. Az-alts are suitable for beginners and for observation, but equatorial mounts are better for long exposure astrophotography. I started out with an alt-az and this satisfied me for a while but after one year I bought an equatorial mount which has allowed me to capture much better images.

Recommended Mounts

I’ve chosen two mounts because they are very popular and with lots of positive comments online if you look for them. It’s always best to go for something reliable. Here are my two choices:

Beginner: Celestron NexStar SE Mount

Intermediate: Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro (check on Amazon).

Also, a word the mount I use. I use a CEM26 iOptron equatorial mount and I think it’s a great choice. I am able to move it easily by myself and place it where I like in my own backyard. I’ve been using it for more than two years now and I am very pleased with it.

Accessories

Accessories can enhance your backyard astrophotography experience. Here are a few essentials you’ll need:

Intervalometers

An intervalometer allows for automatic, timed exposures without manual intervention. This means you can set it and forget it. Sit in your chair and enjoy the view from your backyard instead of manually controlling your camera.

Filters

Light pollution filters and narrowband filters can make a huge difference in image quality.

Power Supplies

Ensure you have a reliable power source. If you are setting up in your backyard you can connect to your home electricity supply. I do this by using a long extension lead of 25m length which has four plugs so I can power my camera, telescope mount and computer.

If you can’t run an extension lead to where you place your telescope, then use a battery. There are many available that can power your astrophotography equipment for the whole night.

Backyard Astrophotography Tips

Choosing the Best Spot for Astrophotography in your Backyard

The spot you choose in your backyard can make or break your backyard astrophotography session. Here’s what to consider:

  • Light Pollution: Avoid areas with direct streetlights or house lights. If possible, use light shields. In my backyard I have found the darker areas in the shadow of buildings to be the best sheltered from streetlamps. Just moving a few feet can make all the difference in blocking unwanted light.
  • Obstructions: Ensure a clear view of the sky with minimal obstructions like trees or buildings. You’ll need a clear view to the North (in the Northern Hemisphere) to align with Polaris with an equatorial mount.
  • Safety: Pick a spot where you can safely leave your equipment set up overnight. Avoid areas which are visible from outside and think about how to protect your equipment from the elements.
  • Wind Protection: Wind is one of the biggest problems I have faced as I live near the sea. I built a foldable protector which I can wheel into place to stop the wind. Trees also work well as wind breaks. If your setup is outside in your backyard, how will you minimize the effects of the wind? Sudden gusts of wind can throw my guiding off and these gusts can ruin my imaging session. Wind protection is very important.
  • Ground: Choose a flat and solid area. Level your tripod or mount. Don’t set up on an area that is damp as your equipment may sink. You may also find yourself kneeling down at some point. I’ve often regretted kneeling down in the winter months and the feeling of soggy jeans around my knees is not pleasant!

Setting Up Your Gear

A well-organized setup can save you time and frustration. Here’s are my top tips to setting up for backyard astrophotography:

  • If you move your astrophotography setup into place each evening, do it before it gets dark. This makes everything so much easier. When it’s light you should connect cables and check everything is ready to go when it gets dark. This also will prevent you missing valuable imaging time. It’s really difficult to plug in my equipment in the dark, I really prefer to get everything in place then wait for dark.
  • Level Your Tripod: Use a bubble level to ensure your tripod is perfectly level. In my experience, though, it doesn’t make a lot of difference if your tripod is not exactly level. Sometimes I have forgotten to check this, and I didn’t see any problems with star trailing or anything else.
  • Attach the Mount and Telescope: Securely attach your mount and telescope, making sure all screws and bolts are tight. If you’re able to store your telescope nearby, you can do what I do and leave your telescope and mount permanently attached. This saves a lot of time in the setup and take down process. it also means you don’t need to check the balance of your telescope before imaging. This can take quite a bit of time to do properly.
  • Polar Alignment: This is crucial for long exposure astrophotography with an equatorial mount. Use a polar scope or a software tool to align your mount with the North Star (Polaris). I use Sharpcap software to Polar align. It normally takes me about ten minutes and I get great results.

Creating a Comfortable Observing Environment

In backyard astrophotography, comfort is key for long nights under the stars. The tranquillity of stargazing is ruined when it’s bitingly cold or when you’re sitting uncomfortably. A cozy setup with a reclining chair, warm blankets, and perhaps a thermos of hot cocoa transforms the experience. Insulate yourself against the nocturnal chill with layered clothing and gloves. Of course, it’s much easier to get comfortable in the summer but this has problems too.

Here’s a few backyard astrophotography tips to make your setup more enjoyable and safe:

  • Use a comfortable chair or stool to avoid fatigue.
  • Protect Your Vision During Observation. Sun filters are a must to protect your eyes and your equipment. Moon filters will also protect against the glare when you observe the moon.
  • A small tent or canopy can protect you from wind and dew.
  • Dress in layers and wear a hat and gloves to stay warm.
  • Use bug spray or a citronella candle to keep insects at bay.
  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast and be prepared for sudden changes.

Mastering the Basics of Astrophotography

Before you can fully enjoy backyard astronomy, you’ll need to master the following skills:

  • Understanding Your Telescope and Camera. You can only get the best out of your equipment by understanding how it works and by trying out different settings. Once you have enough experience of using your camera and telescope, you’ll begin to create much better images. The difference between the images I first took from my garden with my Celestron 130slt telescope and those I take now is night and day!
  • Focus Like a Pro: Tips for Sharp Star Images. I made many mistakes with this both with a DSLR and with my telescope and dedicated camera. Mistakes with focus spoilt my entire night’s imaging and I had to throw away hundreds of frames. Focus is one of the most important things to master, always double check your focus and get it right!
  • Navigating the Night Sky: Finding Key Constellations. With other techniques such as plate solving and the use of goto mounts etc., knowing how to navigate the skies may seem unnecessary. However, you need to know how to spot objects and constellations in the sky as this will increase your enjoyment. You’ll also be able to teach others about stargazing. Finding stars to focus on means locating a star above your head and identifying it.

Techniques for Stunning Star Shots

Here are some of the steps you will need to follow to make your backyard astrophotography as success:

Long Exposure Photography

With deep sky objects such as galaxies and nebulae you’ll need to be able to take exposures of several minutes to be able to image them from your garden. The worse the light pollution in your back garden sky, the more exposure time you may need.

Stacking Images

Once you have taken your shots, you’ll need to check them and delete those that have star trails or are less than perfect and stack them. You’ll need to use software like Siril or Deep Sky Stacker (both are free) to do this. Once your frames are stacked you will have one image that is an average of all your photos.

Shooting Star Trails

This is a special technique to try where you take very long exposures without tracking so that the stars move in your image. This creates those wonderful circular tracks in the sky you see in many amazing photos. By choosing a suitable foreground these star trail shots look amazing!

Post-processing your images

Once you have your stacked image, as mentioned above, you can edit and post-process this in a program such as Photoshop (paid for) or Gimp (free). There are also other paid programs such as Pixinsight to help with this and many different plugins you can buy to help you create stunning results from your stacked image. I use Photoshop, but the choice is yours.

Long Imaging Sessions

Astrophotography imaging sessions can take many hours. When I image I leave my telescope setup on the whole night to maximize the number of images I take. I’m lucky because I image from Turkey where the skies are very clear most of the time.

When I started astrophotography, most of my images were only a couple of hours of total exposure but now I’m looking for at least 7 or 8 hours depending on my target. Recently I have just finished imaging the Whale Galaxy and now have 15 hours of data  taken over three nights. This is the longest I have ever done!

Are you going to sit outside all night long? No, of course not! When you know what you are doing, you can setup, polar align and start your astrophotography imaging session. Return only to check your images are coming out fine and that there are no problems with your equipment. You may also need to check the weather conditions if you think they might change.

Astrophotography, unlike observing, does not need us to be physically outside all the time. Therefore, if you’re setting up in your backyard, the best tip for backyard astrophotography that I can offer you is to spend as much time indoors as you can. As you progress, you’ll automate your imaging session more and more. This will mean you just set up and go watch a film or sleep for a few hours. From time to time, go check up that everything is running smoothly.

Ah, how I love astrophotography!

Tips for Planning your Astrophotography Sessions

The best astrophotography happens under clear, dark skies. Here’s how to plan your sessions:

Best Times of Year and Day:

You should check what time different targets, the moon and so on rise and set and when they will be up at the meridian (highest point in the sky). You want to plan to image your target when it is not low on the horizon and away from light pollution. The best images will be taken high in the sky directly overhead. Plan accordingly paying attention to obstructions that may exist in your backyard.

Seasonal Considerations:

Winter offers longer nights and less atmospheric turbulence, while summer provides warmer temperatures.

Also, there is a great opportunity to photograph galaxies in spring and this is known as galaxy season. I have enjoyed this time focusing on galaxies like the Sunflower, the Black Eye Galaxy and the Needle Galaxy.

There are many kinds of galaxies to photograph, one interesting type is the lenticular galaxy which can be photographed from the backyard.

In winter, I love returning to image the Orion nebula and all the winter targets such as the Horsehead Nebula and the Rosette Nebula. It’s great to see these old friends come back into my garden sky every year.

In summer there are so many nebulae like the famous Eagle Nebula and the North American Nebula which are fantastic targets to photograph at every level. This is the time of year to photograph the Milky Way as it is at its most visible.

The best time to image is usually after midnight when the sky is darkest, and most people have gone to bed.

In winter, you’ll need to be more careful about setting up in your backyard. It won’t be as comfortable as in summer. You may need more shelter especially from the cold wind. Have a cover ready for your equipment in case of sudden rain or worse.

The advantages of winter are many despite the cold. I love the longer nights which give me an opportunity to get more time on my targets. I also enjoy imaging the winter favorites such as Orion Nebula and the Pleiades which are absent in the summer.

The cold temperatures mean that your camera will stay cooler lessening the effects of noise on your images. This will especially be true if you use a DSLR. I use a cooled camera so this doesn’t affect me. Winter or summer my camera images at 0 degrees.

The summer means shorter nights but fewer clouds. You can really enjoy the summer sky!

Where I image summer also means more people and more light pollution. In the winter I am alone in my backyard in the dark, which is the best place to be for astrophotography.

If your target is up near the meridian, the light pollution is reduced and your images will be best taken then. I find that my images deteriorate once my target heads to the west and goes down below about 20 degrees to the horizon. I do have some distant light pollution in that direction as well as the sea which reflects light.

There are so many factors for you to consider when doing backyard astrophotography. Your situation will be very different from mine. I hope my backyard astrophotography tips are helping you.

Recommended Apps and Websites

Where would the astrophotographer be without apps? Here are two kinds of apps you’ll find most helpful:

  • Weather Forecasts: Clear Outside, Weather.com
  • Light Pollution Maps: Dark Sky Finder, Light Pollution Map
  • Stargazing apps: Star Walk 2, Sky Safari

Here’s a guide I wrote with my top six astrophotography apps.

Of the above apps I’ve found that Clear Outside is reasonably accurate which is better than I can say for most weather apps. Light pollution apps are quite reliable because your level of light pollution won’t change much.

Light Pollution Solutions

Light pollution can be a major obstacle. Here’s how to combat it:

Using Light Pollution Filters

Invest in a good light pollution filter to reduce the impact of city lights. These filters selectively block out the wavelengths of light commonly emitted by streetlights and other artificial sources, allowing the natural light from celestial objects to pass through. Some popular options include the Optolong L-Pro and the Astronomik CLS filter. I have both of these filters, so I know they are good. These filters can be particularly effective for deep-sky photography, where faint objects are otherwise washed out by light pollution.

Creating Light Shields

Use cardboard, fabric, or commercial light shields to block stray light from nearby sources. This is especially useful if you have streetlights or neighbours with bright outdoor lighting. Setting up barriers around your observing area can significantly reduce unwanted light intrusion.

Shielding Your Backyard: Focus on creating the darkest environment possible in your backyard. Turn off all exterior lights and ask neighbours to do the same if they’re willing. Use blackout curtains or covers on windows to prevent indoor lights from spilling outside.

Additional Tips for Minimizing Light Pollution Impact

Plan your sessions around the new moon phase when the sky is naturally darker. Also, aim to shoot during the late hours of the night when artificial light use in residential areas decreases.

Use natural barriers like trees or hedges to block out light from specific directions. Positioning yourself strategically can create a shadowed observing spot with minimal light interference.

Streamlining Setup and Teardown

An efficient setup and teardown process can save you time and frustration:

  • The first tip I have is to organize your gear so you can find it easily even in the dark.
  • Have a high-power torch handy or a battery with a light like I have to throw light on places where you need it.
  • Keep your cables organized to avoid tangles and tripping hazards.

Automating Processes

Automation can make your imaging sessions more efficient and enjoyable. Then you won’t need to be outside in your back yard all the time. I like to get things setup and running then go inside and continue with my life. It’s only necessary to check all is going well from time to time. Some manage to do everything remotely so they don’t need to keep going outside.

There is a lot of choice of software that can automate your imaging process such as my preferred program APT (Astrophotography tool). There are many alternatives such as NINA. These programs handle many processes for you such as dithering, imaging plans and meridian flips. They also work with autoguiding programs like PHD2.

I haven’t used remote solutions yet but I know that Asair is a good piece of hardware that works with wireless, so you’ll need to make sure you have a Wi-Fi connection in your backyard. I am thinking about trying this kind of remote solution soon so that I can check from inside that all is going well.

Engaging the Family in Backyard Astrophotography

Backyard astrophotography is also an opportunity to get your partner or family involved. This is a great learning opportunity for your kids and sharing your passion with others adds to the pastime immensely.

So if your kids or partner expresses an interest get them to help you outside in the garden. Perhaps they’ll fall in love with astrophotography as well!

Conclusion

Backyard astrophotography is a learning experience that is both personal and awe-inspiring. The benefits of this pursuit are profound: a deeper connection with the universe, an enriched understanding of astronomy, and moments of pure wonder.

The rewards are not just the stunning images you capture but also the peacefulness and joy you feel when gazing at the night sky. Each star, planet, or galaxy you photograph from your own backyard becomes a challenge to reveal the amazing beauty of the universe, making backyard astronomy a truly satisfying pastime.

For me personally I am blown away by the fact that I can photograph objects that are millions of light years away from my own backyard. My images of distant galaxies show me how they looked millions of years ago and make me wonder who might be living there so far away. Perhaps they are looking back at us and taking photos of our galaxy and wondering the same thing?

I encourage you to follow the backyard astrophotography tips I have given you here and start your journey today! Or perhaps you’ve already started? In that case, I hope this post has motivated you and given you the tools to raise your game.