Do you need a computer for astrophotography?

In this post, we will consider how beneficial a computer is for astrophotography, why it might be used, and why it is not essential. That being said, whether or not you should use a computer or laptop will depend on several factors such as the equipment you have, the level of automation you need, and what you are trying to do. Based on my journey from beginner to intermediate level in astrophotography, and what I have learned along the way, I will answer this question in an easy-to-understand and practical way.

A computer is unnecessary for astrophotography with a DSLR camera, but it is essential with a dedicated astronomy camera. An intervalometer can be used with a DSLR to take a set number of sub-exposures of any length, a laptop enables you to plate solve, plan imaging sessions, and store images.

It doesn’t matter if you are wondering how to get started in astrophotography and haven’t yet tried it, or whether you are more experienced and are thinking of switching to the use of a laptop with your existing setup, there are many reasons why you might want to use a computer. There are also many situations where you may not want to use a computer and that is fine too. Let’s take a look at your choices and I hope this will help you decide whether you need to use a computer or not.

Astrophotography without a Computer or Laptop

It is absolutely possible to do astrophotography without a computer or laptop and this is the best way for beginners to get started. Either with a basic telescope or DSLR camera and lens, there is no need to use a laptop to start with. Click here for my tips how to do astrophotography with a telescope. I didn’t use a laptop for almost two years with satisfactory results. Bear in mind that here I am solely talking about imaging as you will need to use a computer for image processing.

When I first started I used a Celestron 130slt goto telescope which had an alt-az mount. I didn’t have to polar align with this mount and I was able to easily align on two or three stars in the eyepiece of my telescope to set up the telescope. I then just needed to enter the target into the hand controller and then manually move it to exactly the right position taking some test shots. Not easy and often required some time to nudge the scope into the exact correct place so that my target was in the center of my field of view.

At first, I took shots of 30-second exposure or less and didn’t need any other equipment. After a while, I wanted to increase exposure time and started to use an intervalometer with my DSLR set to bulb mode. Again, no computer is needed!

The problem was I was limited by the accuracy of my mount which was poor. I could manage 60 seconds at the most which meant I had to take many hundreds of images to get a good image. This also required a lot of storage space and I soon began to feel my images were not as good as I wanted.

Even when I upgraded to an equatorial mount, I manually polar aligned using the small polar telescope on my Ioptron mount and was even able to take two-minute exposures without bad star trailing. Still, no computer was necessary but I had problems aligning stars and finding my target sometimes wasted up to an hour until I was happy that the object was centered in my field of view.

Without the use of a laptop, you can only use your equatorial mount unguided which limits your exposure time depending on the quality of your mount. If you buy a very expensive mount that has encoders, you might be able to do longer exposures but this will be limited.

I found that without using a computer and while doing two-minute exposures the results were OK but I would have to delete about 30% or more of the photos I had taken because of imperfections in the mount and stars that were not round. This small movement of the mount made the images slightly blurred.

Benefits of Using a Laptop for Astrophotography

At a certain point, I decided to try guiding as I had seen such fantastic images from others and I knew I had to improve the quality of my astrophotos. This meant using my laptop attached to a guide camera which was fixed to a 60mm guide scope. This was a cheap improvement. I used an SVbony SV 301 camera as a guide camera and ran a USB connection to my laptop where I installed PHD2 guiding software.

The addition of guiding improved my images and now if I want I can take exposures of 10, 20, or even 60 minutes with very few images needing to be deleted. This has saved time dramatically and the quality of the images is much better.

Here are some of the many benefits of using a computer for astrophotography:

  • a laptop can be used which is very portable
  • dedicated astronomy cameras can be used
  • free software such as PHD2, APT, Sharpcap, Nina, and much more can be used
  • plate-solving makes finding and framing objects quick and easy saving time
  • images can be seen on a larger screen rather than on the small screen of a DSLR
  • software to help with the focus can be used
  • a cooled camera can be used to reduce noise in your images
  • guiding can be used to enable longer sub-exposures of many minutes
  • imaging session plans can be run automatically
  • Meridian flip can also be done by software at the best time

Processing Astro Images

There is one area where a computer must be used. When processing images it is necessary to stretch your raw files with a program such as Gimp, Pixinsight, or Photoshop. It is not possible to photograph deep sky objects which are very faint and distant without the use of a computer stacking program. Many images are stacked together and then processed to create the final image. This part of the process is the artistic element of astrophotography.

Processing astrophotos requires practice and skill and can only be done using a computer.

Conclusion

You don’t need to use a computer for astrophotography if you plan to use a DSLR camera and take shorter than 30-second exposures. If you want to use guiding or take longer exposures than this, you will need to use a computer, either a laptop hooked up to your equipment or a PC indoors. Also, if you want to try using a dedicated astronomy camera such as those manufactured by ZWO, Altair and Rising Cam, etc. you’ll need a computer to image with them.

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