The best astrophotography camera for you will deliver great images of the stars, planets, and Deep-Sky objects. The wrong astrophotography camera choice may leave you frustrated and annoyed.
There are several choices in selecting a camera for astroimaging, ranging from a smartphone, DSLR, or a CMOS/CCD sensor. Each selection has pros and cons, but the ultimate determination of which is best for you is the one you will use.
We’re going to help you decide what’s best for you.
Table of Contents
Smartphone vs. DSLR vs. CMOS vs. CCD
Smartphones take great afocal pictures, and they make setup a breeze. A Smartphone is an excellent choice for backyard astronomers with children. You’ll quickly see the results.
- Focus the eyepiece until your image looks sharp.
- Connect the phone to the eyepiece.
- Line up your phone’s camera lens with the eyepiece lens.\
- Snap a picture
Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera is an excellent introduction to astrophotography and offers easy imaging condition tweaking (f-stop, frames.)
- Connect the DSLR to the telescope.
- Set the F-stop, ISO, and exposure time
- Focus the DSLR
- Capture a picture
- A single image is created from all data collected
A CMOS or CCD sensor offers more sensitivity and less noise than DSLR CCDs. It’s more complicated to generate images with CMOS/CCD sensors than with DSLR cameras.
A Charge Coupled Device (CCD) detects less “noise” than CMOS and uses long exposures to collect light photons—a good choice for Deep-Sky astrophotography.
A Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) detects “higher” noise and uses shorter exposure times than CCDs.
- Remove the eyepiece
- Insert a spacer
- Insert the CMOS or CCD sensor
- Connect a USB cable from the sensor to a laptop
- Collect images via laptop.
- “Stack” images and create a final image.
|Camera Type||The Good||The Not So Good||Requirements|
|Cell phone||Wide-field imaging||Deep-sky||Telescope adaptor|
|DSLR||Lunar, wide-field, deep-sky||Planetary, long exposures (5 min+)||Tracking mount, intervalometer|
|CMOS||Shorter exposures||Deep-sky, planetary||Laptop, image processing software,|
|CCD||Long-exposure, 10+ minutes||Deep-sky, wide-field imaging||Laptop, image processing software|
Astrophotography Camera Considerations
Keep these factors in mind when purchasing a camera for your astrophotography telescope.
Planets appear blurry or fuzzy when there is atmospheric turbulence. Faster frame rates “freeze” the view, letting you capture clear images in split seconds of stable air. Quick frame rates combat poor seeing conditions.
Planets are tiny objects in the night sky. You get a small image scale when you view planets through telescopes with short focal lengths. So if you want a fine-detail image, you need small pixels packed tightly on the sensor.
However, your image scale is larger if your telescope has a long focal length. In this case, use a more sensitive larger pixel to capture fine details.
Using A CMOS or CCD Sensor as An Astrophotography Camera
As you can see from pixel size, your telescope’s focal length makes a difference in which astrophotography camera you use. CMOS/CCD sensors draw operating power from your laptop.
Short to Moderate Focal Lengths (300mm to 1000mm)
Cameras with small, densely-packed pixels provide an excellent image scale in smaller telescopes.
Celestron NexImage 10MP is the astrophotography camera I use with my Celestron NexStar 8SE. Their sensor fits any telescope with a 1.25” eyepiece. This is a budget-friendly camera that takes detailed celestial images.
A USB 3.0 connection lets it shoot up to 200 smaller-resolution frames per second (fps.) In addition, it has Celestron’s iCap software to capture and export images. Finally, it comes with RegiStax stacking software to align, stack and filter your best planetary images.
- Quick focusing with live video
- 3856 x 2764-pixel array with small pixels
- High-resolution images
Moderate to Long Focal Lengths (≥1000mm)
A good astrophotography camera with relatively small pixels is best for telescopes with moderate to long focal lengths. In addition, a fast frame rate (30-120fps) helps freeze-seeing.
Celestron NexImage Burst Color uses one of the best imaging sensors for astroimaging, the Aptina AR0132 CMOS. This camera lets you manually adjust exposure time, color balance, frame rate, and gain for the crispest images possible. You’ll capture live video on your computer and then use included software to remove any frames affected by unstable air. Then it stacks the clearest frames into a high-res image.
ZWO ASI120MC-S is a 1.2-megapixel color CMOS with USB 3.0 data transfer. Up to 60 frames per second (fps) at the camera’s maximum resolution and 254 fps at its minimum. It connects to 1.25” eyepieces with the included T-nosepiece.
Using A DSLR as An Astrophotography Camera
Sony, Nikon, and Canon make excellent DSLR and mirrorless cameras for astroimaging. A DSLR gets you started on your astrophotography journey. With a solid tripod, they give you the ability to image nightscapes and the Milky Way. Use it with your telescope, and you have a deep-sky astrophotography camera.
The good news is that you might already own one of these! But if you want a go-to camera that does it all, check out these recommendations.
Even though Nikon released this camera in 2017, it is still a powerhouse and great for nighttime images. Use its Silent Live View Mode and interval timer mode to capture over 8k-size images. You’ll shoot detailed time-lapses with no shutter vibrations. So you’ll get the sharpness you want. In addition, the Silent Live View bypasses the camera’s mirror movement and mechanical shutter, saving shutter cycles and letting your battery last longer.
The Nikon D850 has full-button illumination, so you can efficiently operate it in the dark. Overall this camera combines speed and resolution to capture your planetary images.
Canon EOS Rebel t7 has an impressive 21.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor. It also has a wide enough ISO range (100-6400, H:12800) to take high-quality pictures. The t7 has built-in WiFi connectivity for easy image upload to your PC or laptop for editing. This Canon is a solid contender for nighttime landscapes and telescope-based astrophotography.
Canon 60D A, 90D, and 1000D all make great astrophotography cameras. You may already own one or know someone who does. Otherwise, you could find one of these older but excellent cameras on the used market.
Best Astrophotography Camera Wrap-Up
As mentioned at the beginning, the best astrophotography camera for you is the one that you will use the most. So if that means you want a telescope that incorporates your smartphone, you’ve found a winner.
A DSLR or dedicated camera may be better for amateur astronomers looking to up their games. The DSLR allows you to take dark landscape or starscape images with just a tripod, long exposure times, and stacking software. Or connect it to your telescope for even more image options.
A dedicated CCD or CMOS camera works with your telescope to take the amazing planetary and Deep-Sky pictures. In addition, their USB connection allows you to take more short exposures that you’ll export, align, stack, and filter for amazing deep-sky astrophotography.