How to Choose the Best Focal Length for Deep Space Astrophotography

Posted by

Selecting the best focal length for deep space astrophotography targets can have a profound effect on the quality of your images and the level of detail you capture. With so many options available, it may be difficult to know which one to pick. In this article, I’ll provide some tips and tricks for selecting an optimal focal length when photographing deep-sky objects.

Before anything else, it is essential to comprehend what focal length is and how it impacts your images. Focal length refers to the distance between a lens and a camera sensor or film; shorter focal lengths offer a wider field of view, while longer ones magnify the image and give you a narrower scope. When photographing deep sky objects, aim for a focal length that provides enough magnification to capture all relevant details without losing too much sky beyond it.

andromeda galaxy at 150mm focal length
Andromeda Galaxy at 150mm focal length

What is Focal Length?

There is a direct proportional relationship between focal length and magnification, such that if you double the focal length, the magnification also doubles. For more information on the mathematics behind this, see this explanation.

Using a Variety of Focal Lengths

I have overcome the problem of the need for different focal lengths by having two alternative setups that will enable me to change the focal length according to the target I want to capture.

So what is the best focal length for deep-space astrophotography? The answer depends on the kind of target you normally want to photograph and then your focal length to give you the widest possible choice.

I have my telescope and camera (ZWO ASI533 MC PRO), which are 650mm, and the camera has a square sensor, which is fairly small. Alternatively, for more wide-field shots, I can use a DSLR camera plus different lenses. Currently, the lenses I have are 17mm, 24mm, 50mm, 85mm, and 135mm. I could actually do with a lens of about 300mm to make the range more comprehensive.

Having focal lengths of 17–50 mm is great for Milky Way astrophotography.

Widefield image of the Big Dipper using the best focal length for deep space astrophotography
Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) captured at 50mm focal length

As you can see in the photo I took above of the Big Dipper, using a DSLR camera and 50mm lens enables wide-field shots of constellations, including landscapes. The result can be quite stunning!

It depends on what kind of picture you want, but when I am taking photos of deep-sky objects with my DSLR camera, the best astrophotography lens I have is my Samyang 135mm. This is a very popular camera lens, and many recommend it for deep-sky astrophotography with DSLR cameras.

Shop at Amazon

Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 Art DC HSM Lens for Canon

Perfect for those wide-field shots!

Get it Now -price is approx. $679 with 15% off.

The other lenses are good for larger targets such as the Pleiades, the North American Nebula, or Andromeda. The telescope takes care of the rest. If I get more money to spend in the future, I would also consider something in the 1500–2000 mm range to capture smaller objects such as smaller nebulae, galaxies, and planetary nebulae.

The best focal length for deep space astrophotography, especially deep sky objects is between 800mm and 1200mm. This range allows you to capture detail within the object while still including enough background sky to provide context. Ultimately, however, the ideal focal length depends on which object you are observing or photographing.

For instance, when observing large objects like the Andromeda Galaxy or Pleiades Cluster, a shorter focal length, such as 500 mm, may be ideal to capture all of them. I would even say, from my experience, that 300–400 mm would frame it even better. When I tried to image the galaxy with my telescope, most of the galaxy was out of the frame, and this doesn’t do the object justice!

On the other hand, when observing smaller nebulae and planets, using a longer lens like 1500mm will allow you to get more detail. The Ring Nebula is one example where a longer focal length would be appropriate. With my setup of 650mm focal length, it is just so very small. Zooming in is not a good solution because that reveals a lack of clarity and resolution when the image is magnified.

In my astrophotography setup, my telescope and camera combination have an approximately 650mm focal length, which is pretty good for most of the targets I have tried to image. It was not possible to capture some targets in one go, so I did several panels using a technique called mosaic. I found this was a good technique for the Christmas Tree Nebula and the California Nebula, for example, because the 650mm focal length was too much to get the whole of the nebula into one frame.

Comparing the Best Focal Length for Deep Space Astrophotography Targets

ObjectFocal Length (mm)
Andromeda Galaxy300-500
Orion Nebula300-500
Pleiades Cluster50-150
Ring Nebula800-1200
Whirlpool Galaxy800-1200
Rosette Nebula400-600
Lagoon Nebula300-500
Eagle Nebula400-600
Triangulum Galaxy800-1200
Veil Nebula300-500
comparing the focal lengths needed to image 10 deep sky objects

The above figures are only rough estimates, and in practise, you may prefer to experiment. I have imaged the Pleiades at 150mm and found them to be very small. I would like to capture it at about 400 mm, which I think would be perfect. In my telescope at 650mm, it just fits, but some of the stars are cut out of the frame, and it would have been nice to include them, although they are beyond the blue nebulosity of the star cluster.

Here’s a telescope great for astrophotography:

SVBONY SV48P Telescope
  • 90 mm aperture
  • 500mm focal length
  • Double-speed focuser
  • Achromatic glass for good edge-to-edge viewing
  • Excellent value – Less than $300
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

When selecting the best focal length for deep space astrophotography, another factor to consider is your camera’s sensor size. With full-frame cameras, longer lenses are possible without sacrificing image quality; on the other hand, crop sensor cameras may require you to use shorter focal lengths in order to not lose too much detail from each shot.

Finally, the best focal length for deep space astrophotography depends on several factors, including the object you are observing or photographing, your camera sensor size, and your personal preferences. Experiment with different focal lengths to find which works best for you, and don’t be afraid to try something new; with practise and patience, you’ll be able to capture stunning images of our universe.

Hopefully, now you’ll understand the importance of focal length in the composition of your astrophotos. I wish you clear skies and good fortune in your astrophotography! If you have any questions for me, I’d be glad to receive them. Just ask me a question here.

More Information

Here is a nice video that explains which focal lengths you need to use for different kinds of astrophotos.