Astrophotography is a dense and intimidating part of astronomy to try and break into as a layperson. There are many, many different ways to pursue astrophotography and many different goals. Some people just want to snap neat pictures for social media, others are trying to create art and still, more are doing amateur astronomical observations with their cameras. The diversity in the field of astrophotography has also led to a diversity of available astrophotography cameras.
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Here we will quickly go over the different categories of astrophotography cameras that you will run into during your research. This overview won’t be exhaustive and there is a lot of very dense, scientific material online if that is your cup of tea. This will be a general overview of the differences between the major types of cameras and their uses.
Different Kinds of Astrophotography Cameras
There are three main types of cameras that are on the market for astrophotography. You have your DSLRs, your CCDs, and your CMOSs. If that looks like Greek to you, don’t worry, they are actually pretty simple once you break them down. Each type of camera has its own strengths and weaknesses as well as optimal uses.
DSLR stands for digital single-lens reflex camera. This is the most basic kind of camera on this list and it is the one you are probably most familiar with. These cameras are your basic digital camera models. If you owned a Nikon CoolPix back in the day, it was a DSLR camera. The camera on your cellphone is a DSLR camera. Nearly all basic digital camera formats that are mass produced and used by regular people and professional photographers alike are DSLRs.
In terms of astrophotography, this is the simplest kind of camera to set up and use. If you have no experience with scientific photography or night sky photography, then you probably want to start out with a nice DSLR camera rather than a CCD or CMOS.
DSLRs are capable of snapping good pictures of things such as the moon, star fields, and, depending on your telescope, some of the planets. It is a good all around, a general camera that is a great starting point for anyone to try and break into the astrophotography field.
CCD stands for charge coupled device. This is a high fidelity, highly scientific camera that excels at long exposure photography. CCDs are the most complicated kind of camera on this list and if you are brand new to astrophotography you probably are going to want to avoid getting a CCD right off the bat.
Unlike what you think of with a DSLR camera, CCDs stream data rather than take what we think of as traditional photographs. This process is nearly flawless when it comes to quantum efficiency which allows you to gather large amounts of data over time and stream it to a computer that is set up to color code, sort, and render the data into more traditional images.
This is a similar process to what NASA does when they create false color images from data off of the Hubble Space Telescope.
If you are looking to get super long exposure photographs and data from night sky objects then you are eventually going to want to get a CCD camera. The downsides to getting these extremely detailed photographs are that CCDs use a ton of power compared to CMOS and DSLR cameras. You are going to need an autoguide system to keep the telescope focused on a single spot for long periods of time. CCD cameras are also quite a bit more expensive than traditional DSLR and CMOS cameras.
But if you know what you are doing, the payoffs can be huge.
CMOS stands for complementary metal-oxide semiconductor and this is the middle point between DSLR and CCD cameras. In fact, many DSLR cameras use CMOS chips to help render their images. CMOS cameras can be used for fast exposure, snapshots or medium length exposures.
CMOS devices are generally cheaper than CCDs but still can produce similar quality images for the average user. Also, CMOS are largely immune to digital noise that can pollute your images and can especially be an issue when imaging the night sky. CCDs are fairly suseptible to noise which makes CMOS better in that respect. CMOS also uses far less power than CCD cameras which make it more feasible to use on the go or out in nature.
CCD cameras use so much power that a power source (an outlet or powerbank) is necessary to use for long periods of time. CMOS and DSLRs on the other hand can comfortably run on batteries.
Not Your Traditional Cameras
One thing you need to keep in mind is that many astrophotography cameras are not the traditional style cameras that come to mind in terms of their functionality and their appearance. DSRL cameras are going to be your typical handheld camera that can be hooked up to photograph whatever comes into the eyepiece with a traditional press of the shutter button.
The other two kinds, CMOS and CCD, look more like scopes or camera lenses than a full on camera. These cameras are attached to your telescope eyepiece directly and then hooked up to a computer to stream the data in real time rather than pressing a button to snap a picture. This is a much more involved process and more complicated than a DSLR.
Keep that in mind when you are doing your research. If you are new to astrophotography, the appearance of some of these cameras might surprise you. Many of them are going to require a direct power source, such as a connection to a computer or outlet, to run rather than batteries.
That being said, here are our favorite picks for best astrophotography cameras on the market today.
Best DSLR: Canon EOS 6D Mark II Digital SLR Camera Body
The Canon EOS 6D Mark II is the most traditional camera on this list. It has a traditional camera body, and will be the easiest for new astrophotographers to set up and use. This is a great camera all around and could also double as a high grade general purpose camera as well.
It offers 26.2 megapixel imaging, can film in full 60p quality and uses traditional batteries and power sources. This means that you can use this camera by hand to snap pictures of the night sky without the use of a telescope or you can configure it to photograph whatever images are being shown in the eyepiece of your telescope.
This would be an excellent portable camera to take along with you on your dark sky adventures. It would be perfect to take camping or hiking. Also, it is small and light enough to be carried safely in a bag or pack. It can run on batteries and it takes super high quality images. You can use it by hand or with the aid of a telescope. That is why this camera is a fantastic entry point for anyone interested in astrophotography.
With the help of a telescope, this camera is capable of snapping some truly breathtaking photos. Due to the easy to use nature of DSLR cameras, these images will be instantly available to edit and post as you see fit. You can get great shots of the moon, high contrast color photos of planets or super sharp pictures of bright star fields.
Canon has a long pedigree of visual excellence but that comes at a price. For a DSLR this is a fairly pricey investment to make but it is well worth it if you are serious about sticking to astrophotography. Not only is this camera a breeze to use, it can be used in a variety of different ways and produces stunning images.Check Latest Price
Best CMOS: Best CMOS 11.3 MP CMOS Color Astronomy Camera
The ZWO ASI294MC-PRO 11.3 MP CMOS Camera is a stunning imaging device that is designed specifically to be used on an autoguided telescope. If you are interested in capturing long form photos of deep space objects with the use of a powerful telescope, this camera is a no brainer. ZWO has made this camera as easy as possible to use.
This camera can be attached to telescopes with both 1.25” and 2” eyepieces. This allows you to easily attach this camera to any telescope on the market. You will not be limited by your specific eyepiece size which is a nice touch.
The ZWO ASI294MC-PRO 11.3 MP CMOS Camera is designed to stream up to 16 frames per second to an attached computer which can produce thousands of quality images over the course of an evening if set up properly. The camera is powered by the USB connection to your computer and does not require additional power unless you are attaching additional accessories to the camera itself.
ZWO has invested a lot into ensuring a solid data transfer between the camera and your computer by including a 256MB DDR3 buffer for quick and stable data transfer and reduced amp glow. It can be frustrating to finish up a session and realize that your camera was dropping frames or the connection wasn’t fast enough or stable enough to safely transfer all of the images you were trying to capture. This way, you know you will be getting those ideal 16 frames per second without any issues.
The camera itself is small and durable made from a CNC molded metal body. The lens is a 12 megapixel camera that is designed to capture the images that your telescope sees. One of the best parts of this camera is that it does not require any additional rendering to produce color images, the images streamed are going to be full, real color images right off the bat which is nice.
All in all, this is an excellent camera that would be an ideal addition to anyone who is already proficient at night sky object tracking and long form viewing with either a goto, autoguider or manual equatorial mount. The images produced are truly great and getting tons of high quality color photos of the night sky is a great way to spend an evening.Check Latest Price
Best CCD: Celestron NexImage 10MP – Solar System Imager
Celestron’s contribution to this list is a small compact CCD camera that is designed to be used with their large number of prime telescopes that they have developed over the years. This camera streams video live to your laptop and then the included software will analyze each image, sort them and pick out the best ones from the bunch. That is the benefit of a CCD camera. The constant streaming of information and data can produce bulk amount of materials from which to choose the best of the best from.
In terms of power, the tiny size of this camera limits its megapixel output by quite a lot. It only produces images at 10 megapixels which is the smallest on this list. However, Celestron has made this CCD rather easy to use and it really shines when taking photos of things such as the moon or the planets. It is small enough to run the power straight from your USB cord and does not require an external power source which is rare for many CCDs.
The small size of this camera makes it easy to tote around, easy to mount to your telescope and it comes in quite a bit cheaper than the other cameras on this list and way cheaper than some CCD cameras on the market.
If you are looking for a moderately priced, entry level CCD camera to get your feet wet with then you are definitely going to want to give the Celestron NexImage 10MP Camera a hard look.Check Latest Price
These are very sold cameras to get you started with astrophotography. They produce great images, are fairly easy to use, and can help you get acquainted with the wider world of astrophotography. This is a very rewarding hobby that can have huge payoffs if you are willing to invest the time, research, and patience into it. You will be amazed at what kind of images you can get out of these cameras. You will not only wow yourself, but you will have the tools to wow the world as well.