Camera: For Astrophotography you will need a camera with Manual Settings. Ive been told that you can do this with many of the popular Aim and Shoot Camera's for sale these days but if you are in the market for a camera, not using the one you have, I would recommend a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) in the line of Canon or Nikon.
Not only are these considered to be the Top of the Line Camera's at this time, but the lenses are interchangeable from the bottom of the line body that may sell for a few hundred dollars all the way to the body that sells for thousands of dollars. For beginners who want to learn Astro-Photography, I would recommend buying the best body you can afford without blowing the budget. Save your money for the lens.
Lenses: The quality of your lens is the most important item in any form of photography. The lens accepts the light and transfers it to your sensor. Ideally you want the sharpest glass to produce the best images. You can have a Canon Xd with a poor lens and you will get lousy images. Opposite you can have a Rebel XTI with a nice lens and get amazing images.
"Put your money where your Glass is..." - Not only will your lens provide the performance you were looking for when you bought your camera but it will last a lot longer than your body if you take care of it. Most Camera bodies will fail after so many snaps of the shutter and have a life of a few to several years depending on how many photos you take. If you are like me, 25,000 photos a year can put some wear and tear on a camera body.
For Widefield Astrophotography most people are using lenses around 18mm. This is about as wide as you can get before entering the realm of "Fisheye Lens". You want to look for what is called a fast lens when you are shopping which is designated by the "f/". A fast lens would be labeled f/2.0 or a smaller number such as f/1.2. This is the maximum value for your lens when it is wide open.
Tripod: This is a no-brainer for all Astrophotographers – you want one. I started out with a Wal-Mart tripod for like $25. This was adequate enough for me when I was learning but later I bought a high quality Carbon Fiber (Carbon Fiber - so it was lightweight cause I like to backpack with it) with a Ball Head. Unless you plan on hiking with your Tripod, I recommend something heavy.
Something else I look for in a Tripod is a Bubble Level. You want the round level on the top of the tripod so that you can set the Tripod legs so the Tripod itself is plumb. This will make composing your scenes much easier.
Thank You for reading Astro Photography 101. Stay tuned for the next installment where I discuss Remote Switches, Intervolometers, Hot Shoe Levels, and more...