In which I learned the importance of a stable telescope mount
Since I'd been playing with a couple of other Celestron products, I recommended either the Meade LT-6 or the Celestron NexStar 4SE. Honestly, I'd hoped that he would choose the LT-6, but since it costs about twice as much, he opted for the 4SE instead.
I'm out in Nantucket for new years, so I finally got a chance to try out the telescope this evening. The viewing conditions were not ideal (extremely windy and bitterly cold, and my right eye isn't still isn't back normal yet), but I think I can conclude that the telescope itself is pretty nice. I'm a little less impressed with the mount and the NexStar go-to system, though in fairness I haven't given them a fair shake yet.
And shake is indeed the watchword, I'm afraid. This was supposed to be Mars :
Admittedly, there was a bit of wind, but the telescope was planted firmly on a large stone pad and I used the time delay feature on my camera so that I wouldn't be touching anything when the shutter fired. This was only a 1 second exposure, so the shaking is pretty bad. I guess if you are hoping to do some astrophotography, don't bother with NexStar mounts. It feels good and strong, but it vibrates. Your eye can follow along just fine, but it sucks for taking pictures.
The telescope itself might actually be pretty good for basic astrophotography. Like a lot of Cassegrains, the 4SE has two optical ports with a mirror to switch between them. Celestron makes simple T-adapters for several models of SLR cameras, so you can bolt your camera body directly onto the second optical port. If you already have a DSLR, using it with the 4SE is very easy. Experimenting with 4SE and my Nikon D50 body seem fairly promising. Here is a shot I took looking through the window, which is laden with fingerprints, dog-nose-prints, and other assorted examples of encrustation and slobber :
Well, it's kind of easy, if you're comfortable using your DSLR in full manual mode. This is one area where I think the consumer telescope makers are missing a big opportunity. All DSLR camera bodies these days have some sort of interface for talking to the lens bolted onto its adapter ring. This allows for all sorts of nice features to work, like automatic light metering, autofocus, image stabilization, selecting F-stops, and so on. My Nikon D50 even has a little motorized driver to push the focus ring of autofocus lenses that don't have their own motors. There are lots of third-party companies that make lenses that work with various SLR bodies, so the interface standards must be obtainable. Why not make a smart T-adapter? A really basic, non-motorized autofocus lens for most DSLRs can be found for around a hundred bucks. I bet a lot of people would happily pay a hundred bucks for a T-adapter with a light meter and an autofocus driver. You'd have a point-and-shoot telescope, and all the brains to make the image capture work would be in the camera body. Which would be awesome.
I'm going to try again tomorrow night. I'm going to try keeping the tripod legs fully retracted, and hopefully there will be less wind.