One thing we often forgot: there is more than just photographing the beautiful night sky in astrophotography. There is more than expensive and hyper-specialized gear. There is more than just advanced editing techniques.
There is… you.
You are what makes the magic happen.
But sleepless nights, cold temperatures, neverending hours spent in a field with mosquitos eating you alive, heavy equipment, and the frustration that comes with the many difficult tasks to master, can make you miserable.
And if you are miserable, the magic stops.
For this reason, to keep the magic alive, we have created this guide to help you stay happy and comfortable during your journeys under the stars.
What Kind Of Astrophotographer Are You?
Astrophotographers divide into two groups: those who image from their own garden, roof, or balcony, and those who have to travel to a suitable location.
Don’t fall into the idea that “staying home” astrophotographers got it easy, or that they are lazy. They don’t, and they are not. But it is undeniable they are as comfy as they can get.
On the other hand, if you go in location, you know the struggle is real: heck, most of the time it feels like going on an expedition.
A Couple Of Tips For Starting Out
Don’t spend everything you can into imaging gear. Instead,save some money to buy stuff for your own comfort and safety.
And do not invest a lot of money in astrophotography before you know you are ok with spending freezing winter nights in the field.
A star tracker such as the SkyWatcher Star Adventurer Pro or the iOptron Skyguider PRO with your current camera and lenses will let you discover the untold side of astrophotography with a failsafe budget.
Checklist For Your Comfort
99% of my astrophotography is done on location, sometimes next to my car. Some other times I have to walk 20-30 minutes from my parking spot.
Staying comfortable is essential, and soon you will find yourself shopping not only for astrophotography gear, but also for outdoors and camping gear.
Good quality clothes and accessories go a long way in letting you enjoy your night time outdoors.
Here are some quick tips to ensure you have a good (and safe) time while working under the stars.
- Bring a buddy who shares the same passion for stars with you. This is the safest and the most rewarding way to do astrophotography.
- Dress in layers and have spare clothes. Even in summer, pack a jacket, as night can be humid and chilly. For wintertime, technical clothes and shoes go a long way to staying comfortably warm.
- Have a big thermos filled with hot beverages (tea or coffee). Have also some water with you to drink and, eventually, cook you a meal. Drinks and perishable foods can be stored in a cooler if you have one.
- Have some food, like snacks, fruits, and other simple stuff to eat. Dehydrated meals to prepare on a portable camping stove are a convenient way to avoid being hungry.
- Have something comfortable to sit on or sleep in.
- Pack all you need for your intended imaging session (plan it in advance!), and avoid carrying equipment you are not going to use.
Choose Your Astrophotography Gear Wisely
We all want images that could compete with those from Nasa, but we have to be realistic. Before buying your equipment, you better answer these three questions:
- Where do you live?
- Where do you need to go to have a decent sky?
- How often can you go there, to justify the investment?
In astrophotography, everything revolves around the quality of your mount. The more your mount is capable, the larger and the heavier your telescope can be.
With an entry-level computerized equatorial mount such as the Skywatcher EQM-35 PRO weighing 17.5kg, my guesstimation is that a complete, full-grown astrophotography setup weighs no less than 40kg.
If you can image from home, then great. Go nuts: the sky (and your bank account) is the limit.
If you can drive to a place where you photograph from next to your car, moving all that equipment is not much of a problem, either.
But if you drive for long miles and throw in a bit of a hike too, then using a full-grown astrophotography setup can prove to be challenging. You may get wonderful images, but soon you will find yourself doing this less and less often until you drop everything or move to a lighter setup.
In this case, it is probably better to settle from the beginning with a star tracker and a good photographic tripod.
The Fornax Lightrack ii is the tracker with the highest max payload and the best unguided tracking capabilities of all.
The SkyWatcher Star Adventurer PRO and the iOptron Sky Guider PRO are probably the most widely used trackers, and they are really good too.
The Omegon Minitrack LX2/LX3 is the lightest and compact of all: great for hiking to capture incredible starry landscapes from a remote location.
How To Carry Around Your Equipment
But how would you carry all this equipment to the field?
Foldable Camping Trolleys
If you have a lot of equipment, but you walk on flat and reasonably smooth ground, the best way to carry your gear is with a camping trolley.
Some trolleys fold very neatly, can carry 80-100kg, and fit easily in your car trunk.
This is the solution I use when I go out there with my two SkyWatcher Star Adventurer PRO, to drag along the 25+ kg of equipment.
While this seems to nullify the advantage of using a tracker, note that for a bit more than half the weight of a classic setup, I can image two targets at once and, if needed, I can strip down my setup to be as light as a few kgs.
Rigid carrying cases come in different sizes and prices. They are shock-resistant, waterproof, and have a pre-cut foam to create slots where you can snuggle in your gear.
You can also use them to fly with your gear safely.
Once closed, it can be used as a low table for your laptop, etc.
Particularly if you have only one tracker, a good backpack will do.
Mountaineer-like backpacks offer the best comfort when fully loaded and have ample capacity.
Compression sacks are a great way to pack real small all your clothes for the night.
I use an f-stop mountain backpack.
These backpacks can be combined with a full range of interchangeable internal camera units (ICUs), so that you can organize the available space in the best way.
Sit, Lay, Sleep: How To Stay Comfortable In The Field
If you are going to pass hours in the field, you need something to rest on.
If you are packing light, a sitting pad will keep your bottom dry and not too cold, while providing some comfort.
Chairs And Stools
A foldable stool is light and compact, but the comfort is close to that of a sitting pad.
A chair like the Leki Breeze or Sub 1, is compact and lightweight enough it can fit inside your backpack.
These chairs are much more comfortable than a stool, even though there is no headrest, so you can’t really nap on them.
If you can afford to carry a bit more weight in a bulkier package, have a look at the Nemo Stargaze Recliner Luxury.
The chair comes with a headrest, and it swings and reclines. Not taking a nap on it will prove challenging.
But where this chair truly shines is at stargazing: simply recline the chair, rest your elbows on the suspension straps and bring your bino to your eyes for a steady and immersive stargazing experience.
Particularly in the warm season and in warm climates, the most compact and lightweight solution is by far, to carry a hammock, like the Eno Single Nest.
Hammocks are very light and comfortable to sit and lay in. Plus, they are quick to set up and have a much smaller impact on the environment than tents.
The main drawbacks of hammocks are:
- You need to hang them, so you need to find two anchor points separated by a proper distance. The Tensa Outdoor Solo poles are good and lightweight hammock poles you can use to set your hammock everywhere.
- In cold temperatures, it is harder to stay warm inside a hammock. Use an under quilt and a sleepy bag and possibly an inflatable mat to further isolate your back from the cold air. In winter, a hammock is not more portable than a lightweight tent.
- In summer, you may need to have a mosquito net to keep the buggers off you. Luckily, this is a compact and lightweight addition.
Sleep In Your Car
And don’t forget, you can always sleep in your car. Get an inflatable mattress and a sleeping bag, and you are good for the night.
Other Useful Accessories
There are several other small accessories that prove to be very useful. Here a quick list:
- Headlamps: a good headlamp with a switchable red light is a must, to see what you are doing and where you are going.
- First aid kit: safety is important. Don’t forget insect repellent, something to cope with insect bites, etc.
- A lighter: the ability to start a fire is always important.
- A swiss knife or other multitools.
- A whistle: should you need to attract attention.
- A binocular to keep you busy.
- Your (fully charged) smartphone: for safety and for using astrophotography apps.
Doing astrophotography out on location feels like leaving for a small adventure, and this is one of the reasons why I keep doing it, instead of settling with narrowband astrophotography from the city.
But if you don’t want to be miserable out there, you have to invest a bit of time and budget in getting the proper accessories to keep you comfy and happy.
Also, try to get a buddy to come along with you and always let someone home know where you are.
And now that you know what to pack, don’t forget to read our guide about setting things up in the field, for a great astrophotography session.
Be happy and stay safe!