A Backpacker’s Guide to Astrophotography, Part II

Dean Wampler
Oct 13 · 7 min read
Daytime panorama of Crater Lake from Mount Scott (Flickr)

In Part I, I introduced ultralight backpacking and the gear I use for doing astrophotography and panoramas on a “weight budget”.

In this quick post, I provide more links for information about ultralight backpacking and photography.

I’ll return to more details about photography techniques in the next post, part III.

Vendors of Ultralight Backpacking Gear

First, here’s a list of gear vendors and more sources of information.

Any others you would add to this list?

I own the Zpacks Altiplex Tent with separately-available, 4 oz pole (25 oz total). It’s no longer made, but the Plexamid tent is close to it. In retrospect, the two-person Duplex is probably worth the extra few ounces for more space, even for solo trips. I also own the Zpacks Arctic Haul 62L Tall pack (23.4 oz), plus several stuff sacks and other accessories. Both are high quality and extremely light, but the Dyneema Composite Fabric is expensive, hence the gear, especially the tents, are expensive.

The packs made by Hyperlight Mountain Gear and the tents by Nemo are excellent alternatives, for example.

Vendors of Photography Gear

While weight is always a concern to some degree, the better photography vendors will favor performance over weight, while gear from less expensive brands is often lighter, for example because they might use plastic instead of metal for some components.

Look at it this way, there are four “knobs” you can adjust: price, weight, quality, features. Different manufacturers make different tradeoffs. There are correlations between these “knobs”, too.

So, here are some vendors to consider.

First, cameras. Going full frame has the advantage of a bigger sensor (up to 61 megapixels (MP) in the latest Sony a7R Mark IV), which is valuable for landscape and night-time photos, but the weight and costs are higher than for cropped sensors (which usually top out at 24 MP). If you are really weight conscious and want to keep costs down while buying high-quality gear, consider a crop sensor system.

Put another way, full frame ups the price, but also the features and image quality. This blog post has a nice chart showing the different sensor sizes out there.

Sony

I switched to Sony full-frame cameras, the a7 series, a few years ago for their light weight and compact size, but excellent performance and quality. They haven’t been as weather proof as models from older manufacturers, but that’s also improved recently.

Specifically, I bought the a7RII with a 42 MP sensor. The a7 models are less expensive with 24 MP sensors.

For a more compact and less-expensive system, consider one of the a7000-series cameras with APS-C (cropped) sensors (24 MP). A nice feature here is Sony’s use of the same E mount on both formats. So, if you want to start with a crop sensor but plan to upgrade to full-frame, you can use full-frame or APS-C E-mount lenses interchangeably (with corresponding extra focal length when putting a full-frame lens on an APS-C body or cropping the sensor when going the other way). Be careful when buying lenses though, since the same mount is used for both form factors, you have to check if a particular E-mount lens is designed for full frame or APS-C.

Sony lenses tend to be excellent, especially recent lenses. The 24mm F1.4 GM and 135mm F1.8 GM prime lenses might be the best available for their focal lengths (See the Lens Rentals blog for tests). They are also expensive.

I’ll discuss some third-party lens makers below.

FUJIFILM

The FUJIFILM X Mirrorless line is a very highly-regarded APS-C system, with a dedicated fan base. If you have no real interest in full-frame cameras, if you expect to stick with a smaller system for the weight and cost savings, this could be the best choice. They also have a GFX medium format system if you’re a very serious amateur or pro.

Micro Four Thirds System

This is a crop sensor and lens mount standard used by Olympus OMD and Panasonic Lumix, plus some other video systems.

These sensors are smaller than APS-C and hence even more compact and relatively inexpensive, but also more limited in terms of pixel resolution (currently maxes out at 20 MP) and light-gathering ability.

When I switched to Sony, it was from the Olympus OMD, because I wanted a full-frame system, better for astrophotography and landscapes, but I do miss the compactness of the OMD system.

The lens available from these manufacturers and third-parties tend to be excellent, while very compact and less expensive than full-frame equivalents. Also, Panasonic cameras have become the de facto choice for many videography needs. Panasonic also recently started a full-frame system, too.

Nikon and Canon

Nikon and Canon are the venerable giants in the DSLR world. Both released their first mirrorless systems just last year, so they now have lighter-weight, more compact, yet full-frame competitors to Sony. Because these systems are new, they have limited lens options, but adapters are available for their DSLR lenses.

Sigma

Sigma is primarily a third-party lens manufacturer, but they are just releasing a new full-frame camera system that looks interesting. It uses a new L Mount standard.

Third Party Lenses

The lenses made by the camera makers tend to emphasize premium price and performance, but a few third-party manufacturers are notable.

Sigma

Sigma makes excellent quality lenses (their Art line in particular) that are much less expensive than comparable lenses from the camera manufacturers, but are often bigger and heavier. Among the “knobs” I mentioned above, Sigma turns up the weight, but turns down the cost, keeping quality high. It’s interesting to note that some of their lens designs support a range of camera mounts, DSLR and mirrorless, which has the effect of increasing the size and weight, whereas they are now introducing some new mirrorless-only mount lenses with smaller form factors.

For comparison, the Sony 24mm F1.8 GM lens weighs about 16 oz or 445 grams with dimensions about 3 x 3.7 inches or 75 x 92 mm, while the Sigma 24mm F1.4 Art lens for Sony weighs about 1.5 lb or 665 grams with dimensions about 3.4 x 3.6 inches or 85 x 90 mm. Roughly speaking, the Sony lens is about two-thirds smaller, while the Sigma lens is about two-thirds cheaper. In tests, the Sony lens does slightly better.

Incidentally, the Sigma 14mm F1.8 Art lens, available for E Mount, L Mount, and several DSLR mounts, is the de facto gold standard for serious landscape astrophotography.

Tamron

Tamron recently introduced two full-frame, E-mount zooms, 17–28mm F2.8 and 28–75mm F2.8. They have received excellent reviews. They are inexpensive, costing about $900, and they are both small and lightweight. However, where they sacrifice is at the edges of their focal lengths, e.g., when comparing the 17–28mm lens to Sony’s 16–35mm F2.8 GM lens, which is about 2.5x the cost and twice the weight, but offers more range. Tamron has more E-mount lenses under development.

Venus Optics Laowa

The Venus Optics Laowa brand specializes in mostly wide-angle primes and zooms for E Mount, Micro Four Thirds, and FUJIFILM GFX. I have their 15mm F2.0 lens, which costs about $850 (US). It uses a solid, all-metal construction, which makes it a bit heavy, but the optics are good, if not best in class.

Tripods

Obviously you need a good tripod for astrophotography and timelapses. They help a lot for panoramas, too, but in principle you can hand-hold daylight panoramas, if you don’t mind cropping away tops and bottoms that don’t line up.

There are lot of tripod manufacturers, most of which I haven’t used. In Part I, I mentioned my Really Right Stuff TQC-14 Mk2 legs and BH-55 PCLR head (total 4.25 pounds or 1.9 kg) and the Peak Design carbon tripod, which I pre-ordered and which weighs under 3 pounds (1.4 kg), head included. Peak Design also offers a kit for converting the tripod into a much lighter table-top size tripod (i.e., by removing all but one set of leg sections), which I plan to use when I really want to keep weight down and don’t anticipate doing a lot of night-time photography.

I also have an older Oben CT-3431 Carbon Tripod with BE-108T Ball Head, 38.3 oz or 1.1 kg, total. It’s not especially stable for a full-frame camera with a heavy lens and the head is wearing out, but it’s been a fine travel tripod and you can convert one of the legs to a monopod. In fact, upgrading to a better Oben head with the same legs would be a fine combination.

Here’s a new idea I’m going to try in a week or so, using a Platypod Ultra plate (3.3 oz or 93.6 gm), plus a set of four bolts that function as legs (5 oz or 142 gm), plus a few other accessors (6 oz or 170 gm), for a total of 14.3 oz or 405.4 gm. I’ll take my Oben head (9.4 oz or 266.5 gm) for a total of about 24 oz or 680 gm. This combination probably won’t be flexible enough for star photos at a high angle, but we’ll see how well it works.

See this DP Review Travel Tripod Shootout for a look at other options and thoughts for what to look for in a lightweight, compact, yet steady tripod.

Finally, a Few Retailers

  • B&H Photo and Video — Their store in NYC is one of the most unique stores you’ll ever visit and possibly the best, most-complete camera store in the world.
  • Adorama — Another excellent store in NYC.
  • Your local camera store! If you only buy online, you’ll lose the option of talking with a pro and handling gear before you purchase it.
  • eBay — obviously…
  • Lens Rentals is one of several companies that rent gear. You can also rent then buy gear. They also have an excellent technical blog by the company CEO, Roger Cicala, with detailed lens tests, etc.

What’s Next

I’ll return to more details about photography techniques in the next post, part III.

Dean Wampler

Written by

The person who’s wrong on the Internet. Cat massage expert, data theologist, ML/AI enthusiast, FP supplicant, O’Reilly author and speaker. Opinions are my own.

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