With so many types of astrophotography cameras available, choosing a model to spend your hard earned money on can be a tough decision.
My advice for beginners is to invest in an entry level DSLR camera and kit lens. This will open the doors to many types of astrophotography including nighttime landscapes, Milky Way portraits, and even deep sky astrophotography through a telescope.
My first astrophotography camera was a Canon Rebel 450D.
Canon, Nikon, and Sony are the leaders of the DSLR camera market. The brand you choose can have a huge impact on your future equipment options. For instance, Canon users are much more likely to stay loyal to the brand after purchasing multiple camera lenses made for a Canon DSLR body.
The Canon T6i makes an excellent first choice:
If you’re like me, you have decided to dive into astrophotography with no previous photography experience. If you are interested in deep sky astrophotography through a telescope, it is wise to consider having an astrophotography camera that is reserved for this process.
I say this for several reasons, one of which being the act of modifying the camera for astrophotography.
The Dumbbell Nebula captured using a modified Canon Rebel XSi
Using DSLR Camera
A DSLR camera body can be used for many types of astrophotography. With a standard kit lens (such as an 18-55mm), Milky Way panoramics and constellation photos are well within reach. Moderns DLSR’s are user-friendly and can help you fast track the basics of night photography.
This type of camera is very versatile. You can later swap the camera lens for a telescope for deep sky astrophotography. For this, you will need a t-ring and adapter to attach the telescope to the camera body.
Types of Astrophotography Available:
- Milky Way Panoramas
- Star Trails
- Night Landscapes
- Deep Sky Imaging
Using a CCD Camera
A CCD camera is designed for astronomical imaging, usually through a telescope. These cameras work differently than a DSLR, as they are designed to maximize collecting light for long periods of time. A CCD camera has a cooler that can keep the sensor from overheating, resulting in images with very little noise.
They are also much more sensitive, with a higher level of control. The Gain setting on a CCD camera can be compared to ISO on a DSLR, with a much more precise level of adjustment.
Types of Astrophotography Available:
- Deep Sky Imaging
- Narrowband Deep Sky
Popular CCD camera brands include SBIG, QSI, Atik, and ZWO. These devices are designed to produce scientific grade deep sky astrophotography images.
CCD camera with a CMOS sensor
I have experience using the CMOS sensor ASI071MC-Cool. This One shot color camera uses a modified DSLR sensor that can be cooled to -40 degrees below ambient temperature. Other camera manufacturers such as Atik, have introduced CMOS sensor cameras as well.
A CMOS camera uses a different sensor technology than a regular CCD does.
This is a fitting first entry into the world of CCD astrophotography, as the color sensor produces regular color (RGB) images just like a DSLR. However, a big advantage a camera like the ASI071 has over a DSLR is the extremely low-noise qualities of the images produced. Have a look at my images of M81 and M82 taken with this camera in March 2017.
More on this camera below.
My First Astrophotography Camera
My first astrophotography camera was a Canon Rebel Xsi (450D). I learned how to photograph deep-sky objects with this camera and even modified the camera myself by removing the IR cut filter.
The Canon Rebel XSi makes an excellent choice for beginner DSLR astrophotographers. Also known as the Canon 450D, this camera was the successor to the Canon EOS Xti, and was introduced way back in 2008. It’s 12.2 megapixel CMOS sensor is small by today’s standards.
For comparison, the latest model in Canon’s line-up in this category (the Canon T6i) is 24.2 MP! The limited ISO capabilities of the XSi are also worth noting, topping out at a measly ISO 1600. The biggest downfall of a DSLR this old is the amount of thermal noise produced. These days, Canon cameras are designed to be much better at handling noise using a high ISO setting.
Comparing noise in 6 different Canon DSLR models:
However, despite its age and humble statistics, this camera can produce stunning results that can compete with images of much more expensive cameras. For the most part, the noise can be taken care of by shooting dark frames, and noise reduction in post-processing. I have seen used DSLR bodies for the Canon Rebel Xsi sell for as low as $150. Now THAT’S a steal!
Quite possibly the most important piece of any astrophotography equipment rig is the camera itself. There are many options available to the amateur astrophotographer and night sky enthusiast.
Brands such as Canon and Nikon have dominated the market for DSLR astronomy photographers in the past, but now camera manufacturers like Sony have also entered the picture with its mirrorless design. The prices and features of these cameras vary as much as the deep-sky nebulas and galaxies you will image with them. I have my preferences towards the Canon line of DSLR cameras, but I have done my best to cover the basics of all astrophotography cameras below.
DSLR Camera Filters
DSLR cameras are great at accepting filters to use during your imaging sessions through your telescope. For example, I use an Astronomik 12nm Ha Filter in my Canon T3i to capture narrowband h-alpha photos. The 12nm h-alpha filters block out all wavelengths of light (including light pollution and moonlight) except for a very narrow band of data in the hydrogen alpha spectrum.
Speaking of light pollution, astrophotographers in the city can benefit from LP (Light pollution) filters for their DSLR camera. The filter I currently use for all RGB (color) imaging is an IDAS LPS (light pollution suppression) filter made by Hutech. This clip-in filter does a great job at blocking stray light from street lamps, exterior lighting, and car headlights.
A Cooled CMOS Astrophotography Camera
The ZWO ASI071MC-Cool uses the same sensor found in the popular Nikon D7000 (Sony IMX071). I have tested this camera on several occasions, capturing deep-sky targets such as the Leo Triplet, and Markarian’s Chain of galaxies.
I learned a lot ab0ut CCD imaging with this camera. It introduced me to the world of .FIT files, Sequence Generator Pro, and an entirely new stacking procedure.
One of the early lessons I learned the hard way, was selecting the correct Bayer pattern for the camera. RAW files from a DSLR camera are debayered automatically in software like DeepSkyStacker and Adobe Photoshop.
DeepSkyStacker can debayer the .FIT files produced with the ASI071 as well, but you have to tell the application exactly how to debayer it. My biggest breakthrough was discovering that the Bayer pattern for this camera is RGGB, and to make the necessary setting adjustments in DSS based on that profile.
The following graphic should help you choose the correct settings when stacking in DeepSkyStacker:
Types of Astrophotography Cameras
There are a few options available when thinking about taking pictures of the night sky. The main type of camera I focus on my astrophotography is a DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera. Other options include CCD (Dedicated, Cooled Astronomical Cameras), Point and Shoot Digital Cameras and Webcams. Each type of camera has it’s strengths and weaknesses, whether it’s performance, cost, or ease of use. The reason I currently prefer using a DSLR camera for my astronomy imaging is the convenience, flexibility, and cost. I may advance into a dedicated astronomical CCD Camera in the future, but for now, I am still getting the results I want with my Canon 450D.
Choosing the Right Camera for the job
The type of camera you will use depends on what you intend to photograph. Because I mainly shoot deep-sky astronomical objects, a DSLR that I could attach to my telescope via a t-adapter was the logical choice. The DSLR also allows you to attach several different types of lenses to it for landscape astrophotography projects.
If you prefer to focus on taking pictures of the planets in our solar system, a webcam may be a better fit for your needs. If you are not interested in all of the technical settings and advanced controls included in a DSLR camera, a Point and Shoot model may be all you need for your landscape astrophotography goals.
If you are a serious amateur astronomer who wants to take your deep-sky astrophotography to the next level, the CCD camera is likely in your future.
This is the act of photographing deep-sky objects in space such as galaxies, nebulae and globular clusters. These objects are usually cataloged as Messier Objects, NGC (New General Catalogue) or IC (Index Catalogues). This is the realm where I spend the majority of my time.
DSLR Cameras and CCD Cameras are the 2 main options available for this type of astrophotography. A third option has surfaced over the past few years, and that is a CMOS sensor dedicated astronomy camera such as the Altair Hypercam 183C.
A tracking telescope mount is required to compensate for the rotation of the Earth, and the apparent movement of the night sky. Without an Equatorial Mount, you will experience star trailing in exposures longer than 15-10 seconds. An example deep-sky astrophotography is this image of the California Nebula.
Landscape astrophotography has gained popularity over the years with the increasingly affordable DSLR’s available. These cameras are much more sensitive to light than ever before, and nobody can resist the allure of an image of the Milky Way! This type of photography can also include shots of constellations, planet conjunctions, the moon and more. This type of photography has quickly become a close second behind my interest in deep-sky imaging. Attaching a camera lens to your DSLR is necessary for a wide field view of space, rather than connecting the camera to a telescope.
Solar System Imaging – Planetary Astrophotography
I began my photographic journey with this type of imaging. My first shots were of the Moon through my Orion 4.5 Reflector telescope. I would use my Point and Shoot Canon Powershot hand-held through the eyepiece for pictures of the Moon, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and Venus. For the best results, astrophotographers will take short videos of the planet they want to capture, and stack the best frames together using Registax or a similar software. The reason for this method is to compensate for varying levels of transparency in the Earth’s atmosphere. Some of the best planetary images in the world were taken using an inexpensive webcam.
Narrowband Deep-Sky Astrophotography
This is where it gets interesting. Narrowband imaging is used by professional astrophotographers around the world, including on photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope! The concept behind this type of photography is to shoot your deep-sky object through different filters that only pick up certain wavelengths of light. This is beneficial for several reasons, among them is being able to capture images under heavy light pollution. This is usually done with a cooled CCD camera with an attached filter wheel.
No matter which camera you use, there is a steep learning curve to overcome before achieving high-quality images like you see on Astronomy Picture of the Day. I encourage you to join your local astronomy club, or one of the many astrophotography communities on the web for specific advice about your astrophotography camera.
Choosing the right camera
No matter which type of astrophotography camera you use, the important thing is that it produces the reduces you are aiming for. Personally, I thought I would always shoot with a DSLR camera. That all changed when I experienced the power of a cooled sensor, and the high-quality, low-noise images it produced.