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Astrophotography Camera

ZWO ASI2600MM First Impressions

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The ZWO ASI2600MM Pro mono is the much anticipated monochrome version of ZWO’s popular ZWO ASI2600MC Pro dedicated astronomy camera. It houses a 26 Megapixel Sony IMX571 back-illuminated sensor, and some seriously impressive specs.

This camera uses a highly sensitive, cooled, monochrome CMOS sensor in the APS-C format. The size and resolution of this sensor is its biggest selling feature.

The ZWO ASI2600MM Pro not only improves on nearly every aspect of its predecessor (the ASI1600MM), the sensor is now APS-C, capturing a larger field of view. In the land of deep space astronomy cameras, the APS-C sensor size is said to be “the sweet spot”, balancing a large field of view with a practical size for demanding optical systems.

If you are thinking about purchasing your first monochrome camera for astrophotography, this would be an excellent choice. It is well supported, features some of the best camera specs in the industry, and is a practical system for a wide variety of telescope configurations. 

Order the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro

Due to its impressive specs and versatility, I believe the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro mono will be one of the most popular cameras for astrophotography in 2021, and beyond. ZWO sent me an early version of the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro to test in my backyard, and report my results. I was not compensated in any way to review this camera, nor was I given any directions of what to talk about. 

ZWO ASI2600MM Pro example image

First light using the 2600MM Pro. 20 x 5-minutes in H-Alpha (3nm Chroma filter). 

The ZWO ASI2600MM Pro Mono

The ZWO ASI2600MM Pro is a lightweight, cooled CMOS astrophotography camera that specializes in deep-sky imaging. This camera shares some features with its ASI1600MM counterpart but there are many upgrades to the 2600MM Pro including; a higher image resolution, a back-illuminated sensor, built-in dew heater, higher full well depth, and quantum efficiency.

In fact, the well depth of the 2600MM Pro is more than twice that of the ASI1600 (50K vs. 20K), and the quantum efficiency is rated to be an impressive 91%. This is the highest QE CMOS camera I have ever used for deep-sky astrophotography. 

Trevor Jones

The 2600MM Pro remains lightweight, although it is slightly heavier than the 1600MM Pro at 1.5 lbs (0.7 kg). The look and feel of the 2600MM Pro are similar to other ZWO cameras with the same port for power, cooling, and USB 3.0 hub.

OPT Telescopes shared this video about this camera in early February, and it does a great job of explaining the key specifications of the camera.

As with other monochrome cameras, filters are needed with the ASI2600 to produce a full-color image. Many will use this camera for narrowband imaging, but this astronomy camera would make an excellent LRGB imaging workhorse as well.

A power cable is needed for powering the cooling system that will control the sensor temperature and help to reduce noise in your image. If you are looking for a suitable power supply for the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro, I recommend using a 12V 5A AC/DC adapter as described on the ZWO website

ZWO ASI2600MM Pro

ASI2600MM Pro Mono Key Features and Specs

Sensor:

The 2600MM Pro camera features a 26-megapixel sensor that provides a wider/larger field of view with increased dynamic range to deliver clear, crisp images. Another feature of the 2600MM Pro sensor is the back-illuminated sensor. This helps to reduce noise and eliminate amp glows produced by weak infrared light that appear in the corner of uncalibrated images.

Pixel size:

Pixel size of the 2600MM Pro is 3.76um. The combination of 3.76 um pixels and a larger sensor allow for a much larger resolution and overall image with a full resolution of 6248 x 4176.

You can calculate the pixel scale of your camera system by combining this value (3.76), and your telescope’s focal length. The ideal range is about 2.0 for a well-sampled image, but this is only a general rule of thumb based on optical seeing conditions. 

The calculation is pixel size divided by focal length, x 206. For example, when pairing this camera with my Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 telescope, I reach a pixel scale of 1.4. (3.76 ÷ 550 x 206 = 1.4)

ASI2600MM Mono

The ASI2600MM Pro mono is noticeably larger and heavier than my ASI294MC Pro and ASI533MC Pro. 

Full Well Depth:

Full Well depth (along with bit depth), give you a better dynamic range, allowing you to take longer exposures before data clipping occurs and avoid unwanted light and bloated stars. The 2600MM Pro has a full well depth of 50,000 e which is more than double that of the ASI 1600MM Pro.

The full well capacity of a camera (sometimes called pixel well depth or just well depth) is a measurement of the amount of light a photosite can record before becoming saturated, that is no longer being able to collect any more.

Quantum efficiency:

Quantum Efficiency (QE) and read noise are the most important aspects of a dedicated astronomy camera. QE can be summarized as the percentage of light that hits the sensor and gets recorded into the final image.

A high QE and low read noise are critical for improving the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of an astrophotography image.  

The ZWO ASI2600MM Pro boasts an impressive QE peak value of 91%, which is even higher than the QE peak for this camera’s color counterpart (6200MC Pro). 

The 2600MM Pro records and converts 91% of the light hitting the sensor into a usable image which is 31% more light than the 1600MM Pro.

Read Noise:

Read noise is the noise created by the camera and includes pixel diode noise, circuit noise, and ADC quantization error noise. Essentially, the lower the read noise of your camera, the better.

The Read Noise of the ASI2600 is extremely low when compared to a traditional CCD camera. The ASI2600MM also includes a built-in “HCG mode”, which helps to reduce read noise at high gain while retaining the wide dynamic range for this camera as at low gain.

The best gain setting for the ASI2600MM Pro will depend on your astrophotography target. You’ll want to set the gain lower for a higher dynamic range (longer exposure) or set the gain higher for lower read noise in a shorter exposure project or lucky imaging.

A strong signal in a long exposure image will overcome read noise, and the calibration process of subtracting dark frames and bias frames will help correct this even further. 

Anti-Dew Heater:

The 2600MM Pro also includes a built-in dew heater that fits in the protective window of the camera to combat dew or ice and keep condensation off your sensor.

The dew heater can also be turned off at any time should you not want to use this feature or to save power.

Protective Window:

The 2600MM Pro includes a protective window in front of the camera sensor. The window is 60mm in diameter and 2mm thick.

Keep in mind that this is an AR (anti-reflective) coated filter, while ASI2600MC Pro (color) uses an IR CUT filter.

Cooling System:

The 2600MM Pro is designed with a two-stage cooling system that can cool the camera sensor below 35°C reducing sensor noise and exposure time.

ZWO recommends that you use a 12V @ 3A DC adapter to power the cooling. The exact connection for power on the camera is 5.5mm x 2.1mm (center pole positive). A 12V 5A power adapter is a common choice, and what I personally use. 

Native Bit Depth:

The 2600MM Pro has 16-bit ADC and can achieve a dynamic range output of 14 stops to improve sharpness and contrast while allowing for smooth color transitions with gradients.

The ASI2600MM Pro supports 2×2,  3×3,  4×4 software binning (and Bin 2, Bin 3 hardware binning). 

Frames per second:

Since the 2600MM Pro has a larger sensor and bit depth it is not able to record data as quickly at only 3.5 frames per second. This is one noticeable advantage of the 1600MM Pro, which may be better suited for recording planetary data or video that you plan on stacking.

This camera supports custom ROI readout modes, which allow for faster frame rates at a smaller resolution. The ZWO ASI2600MM Pro can shoot a whopping 51 FPS when shooting at a tiny 320 x 240 resolution. 

cooling fan

The cooling fan and connector ports at the back of the camera. 

The 256MB DDR3 memory buffer inside of the camera helps manage a stable transmission of data from the camera to your computer. 

ZWO ASI2600MM Pro vs. ZWO ASI1600MM Pro

The ASI2600MM Pro is a monumental upgrade from the aging ASI1600MM Pro in every key category. Notable improvements are in quantum efficiency, well-depth, and overall resolution. 

Please see the comparison chart below for a complete overview:

Specifications ASI2600MM Pro ASI1600MM Pro
Weight 1.5 lbs 1lb
Sensor Monochrome Monochrome
Sensor model Sony IMX571 CMOS MN34230
Cooling System Built-in Built-in
Resolution 26 MP APS-C 16 MP Micro Four-thirds
Pixel Size in microns 3.76 3.8
Back-illuminated sensor Yes No
Built-in Dew Heater Yes No
Full well depth 50,000 e 20,000 e
Quantum Efficiency 91% 60%
Frames per second 3.5 23
Price $2,480 $1,280

ZWO ASI2600MM Pro Specifications

  • Sensor Type: CMOS
  • Sensor: Sony IMX571
  • Mega Pixels: 26.1 MP
  • Pixel Array: 6248 x 4176
  • Pixel Size: 3.76 microns
  • ADC: 16 bit
  • Back Focus: 17.5 mm
  • Camera Connection: M42 X 0.75
  • Color or Mono: Monochrome
  • Cooled: Cooled
  • Full Resolution Frame Rate: 3.51fps
  • Full Well Capacity: 50ke
  • Max Frame Rate: 16fps
  • Peak Quantum Efficiency: 91%
  • Read Noise: 3.3e
  • Sensor Diagonal: 28.3 mm
  • Weight: 1.5 lb

Configurations and Back Focus

As with any dedicated astronomy camera, reaching the ideal back focus is critical to maximizing your results. Thankfully, ZWO provides a detailed back focus guide to achieve the recommended 55mm back focus of the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro. 

I will be using this camera with a ZWO 8-position filter wheel with 36mm filters. This adds 20mm of spacing to the camera configuration, and I will need to keep that in mind when building the imaging train.

camera attached to telescope

The camera attached to my Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 refractor telescope.

For now, I have the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro attached to my telescope using a 2″ filter slider drawer and a 16.5mm adapter. This allows me to insert 2″ round mounted filters into the imaging train until my new set of narrowband filters arrives. 

ZWO ASI2600MM Pro backspacing

My current backspacing configuration of the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro.

I have the camera attached to my Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO to enjoy a wider field of view than I am used to with this telescope. The camera system threads directly to the dedicated field corrector (M48 threads) of the telescope. 

A notable change in backspacing between the ASI1600MM and the 2600MM is the depth of the sensor from the front of the camera body (17.5mm). Those upgrading from the ASI1600 will need to keep this in mind when building out the new system. 

This camera also includes a tilt adjustment feature, which can be adjusted by using the 3 sets of screws found on the black flange of the camera. I would not recommend changing the factory tilt of the camera flange unless you are sure that there is a tilt issue in your optical train. 

Drivers and Camera Capture

I will be controlling my ASI2600MM Pro using Astro Photography Tool via the ZWO drivers. The ZWO website includes an extensive list of camera drivers for all of their dedicated astronomy cameras.

The latest ASI Cameras driver must be installed on your computer first, and then the ZWO ASCOM driver that supports all ZWO cameras, the EAF (electronic automatic focuser), and EFW (electronic filter wheel).

You can also read the full ZWO ASI2600MM Pro manual online which includes detailed performance graphs of the camera including the QE curve, dynamic range, and read noise. 

Included Items with the Camera

  • ZWO branded camera bag
  • ASI2600MM Pro Camera body
  • M48-M42 adapter
  • Printed Quick guide
  • USB3.0 Cable (2m)
  • M42-M42 21mm extender
  • M42-M48 16.5mm extender
  • 2″ cover
  • Hexagon wrench
  • 2x USB 2.0 cable (0.5m)

Final Thoughts

The reason the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro is such a practical choice for deep space astrophotography is the sensor size. If you have owned dedicated astronomy cameras in the past, chances are the sensor was smaller than APS-C.

For comparison, the ZWO ASI1600MM Pro has a micro 4/3 sensor, which is useful in most situations. However, you may find that a sensor of this size crops the field too much, and sacrifices the native focal length of your telescope.

I don’t know about you, but I would always take a little extra real estate on the camera sensor to collect larger deep sky objects in a single frame. 

Creating mosaics will be less common with this camera because you can gather so much sky in a single frame. Pair this camera with a short focal length refractor like the William Optics RedCat or Radian Raptor 61, and you’ll be photographing entire regions of nebulosity in the sky. 

The resolution of this sensor is incredible. I have enjoyed the small 3.76 micron pixel size of the QHY268C, and I am thrilled to now be able to shoot in monochrome with the ASI2600MM Pro.

Speaking of QHY, they too have a monochrome version of this sensor in the QHY 268M. This provides an alternative to the ZWO version for QHY fans looking for an affordable monochrome CMOS camera that delivers big results. 

The ZWO ASI1600MM Pro was one of the best-selling astronomy cameras ever, and for good reason. Some of the best amateur astrophotography images I’ve ever seen were captured using that camera. 

I believe the 2600MM Pro is poised to replace this camera’s prestigious position, and become a pivotal product in the astrophotography community. 

The ZWO ASI2600MM Pro is roughly twice the price of the ZWO ASI1600MM. I think it is priced correctly for the long list of improvements over the aging ASI1600MM Pro.

Seagull Nebula SHO

The Seagull Nebula in SHO. Captured using the ASI2600MM mono and Chroma 3nm filters.

Order the ZWO ASI2600MM Pro

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My Best Images & The Gear Used

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On this website, I do my best to share information and astrophotography tips that provide value. I could pat myself on the back about all of the great astrophotography images I took this year, but it is of little interest to anyone if I don’t explain how I took the shot. 

In this article, I’ll share my best astrophotography images of 2020, and the equipment setups used for each image. This way, you’ll have a better idea of what’s behind each image, and how you can accomplish a similar result yourself.

Capturing the images with the right set of gear is only half of the equation, of course. If you’re interested in learning how I process my deep-sky astrophotos, consider taking a look at my premium image processing guide

astrophotography equipment

The Gear Behind My Best Images of the Year

As you know, 2020 was a strange year. I spent a lot of time at home and took most of my astrophotography images from my light-polluted backyard (Bortle Scale Class 7) in the city. I tried to capture a mix of galaxies and nebulae this year using a number of different telescopes, cameras, and filters.

I’ve included links to the equipment used for each shot, from the filter to the telescope mount. You obviously don’t need to use the exact set of gear to replicate my results, but at least you’ll have a better idea of what to expect.

I have also included the software used to photograph the images with my laptop computer, and the post-processing software as well. 

For the absolute latest images, consider following AstroBackyard on Instagram and Facebook. For a behind-the-scenes look at how the images are created, you can also subscribe to my YouTube Channel

best astrophotography images

Messier 82: The Cigar Galaxy

  • Object Type: Irregular (Starburst) Galaxy
  • Imaging Style: Deep-Sky LRGB
  • Camera Type: Monochrome CCD

After a cloudy start to the year, I finally began my first serious astrophotography project in March. I have always wanted to photograph the Cigar Galaxy (Messier 82) with enough focal length to reveal the interesting structure of this irregular galaxy

In the past, I’ve collected light on this area of the night sky using a wider field-of-view (400mm-800mm). This allows you to create an image that features 2 distinct galaxy types in a single shot (Spiral and Irregular). 

Nearby Messier 81 always seems to get plenty of attention from the amateur astrophotography community, so I decided to give its neighbor some love. I don’t recommend photographing this galaxy on its own unless you’ve got at least 1000mm of focal length. 

Overall, I managed to collect 5 hours and 25 minutes of total integrated exposure time on this galaxy in Ursa Major. I am happy with the result (definitely my best yet), but I would have liked to capture more hydrogen-alpha data to really bring out the “fiery-looking plumes of glowing hydrogen blasting out of its central regions”. 

Messier 82 galaxy

The Cigar Galaxy in Ursa Major. 

This was an early project using the Starlight Xpress SX-42 (Trius 694 Mono) CCD camera, and I was still very new to building LRGB images in Adobe Photoshop. This camera features a 6.1 MP monochrome CCD sensor with 4.54-micron pixels. 

It is my first CCD camera, and it has provided me with some of the most incredible deep-sky images I have ever taken (including my APOD in June 2020)

Starlight Xpress Trius 694 Mono CCD

I now have an astrophotography rig better suited for photographing small galaxies (Celestron Edge HD 11), but the 6-inch refractor used for this photo is well-suited for medium-sized galaxies like M81 and M82.

Each and every exposure used for this image was 5-minutes long. 300-seconds seemed to be enough for the Ha, but I don’t think I’ll shoot my LRGB sub-exposures so long in the future.

Messier 51: The Whirlpool Galaxy

  • Object Type: Spiral Galaxy
  • Imaging Style: Deep-Sky LRGB
  • Camera Type: Monochrome CCD

Soon after completing my Cigar Galaxy photograph, I pointed my telescope towards the Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici. In the northern hemisphere, it’s an excellent project to take on in the springtime.

Again, I used my Astronomik LRGB filters and the Starlight Xpress monochrome CCD. With pleasing results on the Cigar Galaxy a month earlier, I decided to keep shooting 300-second sub-exposures on the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Unlike my image of Messier 81, I shot plenty of luminance data for this target (36 x 300-seconds). I believe this helped to keep the noise minimal, even after substantial stretching to the saturation and curves. 

M51 Whirlpool Galaxy

The Whirlpool Galaxy in Canes Venatici. 

The aperture of the Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 (6-inches) helps to resolve faint, detailed structures in galaxies like this. The Esprit 150 really is a dream telescope for refractor fans.

Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 APO

The Starlight Xpress filter wheel is an absolute pleasure to use with my Trius 694 mono CCD camera. After installing the ASCOM drivers on my laptop computer, I can connect to the filter wheel using Astro Photography Tool and can change filters quickly and reliably depending on the subject matter. 

It’s a 7-position wheel containing a complete set of Astronomik Luminance, Red, Green, Blue, 6nm H-Alpha, 6nm OIII, and 6nm SII 1.25″ filters. A filter wheel is a must if you plan on using a monochrome camera to build full-color images over time. 

NGC 2539: Thors Helmet

  • Object Type: Emission Nebula
  • Imaging Style: Deep-Sky Narrowband (HOO)
  • Camera Type: Monochrome CCD

Thor’s Helmet Nebula is a fascinating deep-sky target in Canis Major and an object that can be difficult to capture from the northern hemisphere. From my backyard, this nebula skims the trees and rooftops of the neighborhood, allowing only a short window of opportunity.

Until this photo, I had only attempted Thor’s Helmet once before, using a telescope with a short focal length (400mm). This time, I was able to get an up-close view of this dynamic emission nebula at 1050mm using the Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 APO refractor.

I photographed this nebula in HOO (Ha, OIII, OIII). This means that I mapped the hydrogen to red, and the oxygen to green and blue. For this subject, I think it creates a beautiful result. 

Thors Helmet

The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro equatorial mount has been extremely reliable since it arrived in late 2019. This observatory-grade GoTo mount can handle a payload of up 75-pounds, yet handles like an EQ6-R Pro with an identical user-experience. 

This tracking mount has spent much of the year outside, with a Telegizmos 365 cover protecting it from the elements. It was so nice to have a deep-sky astrophotography rig already polar-aligned and ready to image when the weather allowed for it.

Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro

On clear nights, I will set up an additional rig (usually the more manageable Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro) to capture another deep-sky object at the same time.

NGC 6888: The Crescent Nebula

  • Object Type: Emission Nebula
  • Imaging Style: Multi-Bandpass Narrowband
  • Camera Type: DSLR/Mirrorless (one-shot-color)

The Crescent Nebula is an extremely popular deep-sky target for amateur astrophotographers, and for good reason. The problem is, it’s small. To capture a detailed portrait of this 25-light-year wide cosmic bubble, you need some serious reach. 

If you haven’t noticed a recurring theme in all of the images on this page up to this point, you should. Again, the incredible Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 Super APO refractor was used to create the image.

1050mm focal length is more than enough magnification for this object, but with a full-frame mirrorless sensor, you get some of the surrounding nebulosity too. 

Crescent Nebula

The Canon EOS Ra was my most-used camera of 2020, and it remains my favorite camera for astrophotography of all time. A full-frame modified sensor is something to treasure. The extremely user-friendly format of a mirrorless camera attached to the back of the telescope reminds me of how I got started in this hobby, and the joy it brings me.

Many people doubted my decision to purchase the Canon EOS Ra, and the critiques claimed it was overpriced. After nearly 30 image projects completed with this camera, I can safely recommend it to anyone looking for a reliable all-around astrophotography camera. 

Canon EOS Ra

The Radian Triad Ultra quadband filter is an incredible fit for the Canon EOS Ra, and this was the filter I used for 90% of my deep-sky shots using this configuration. 

It can be difficult to showcase the faint shell of oxygen surrounding the Crescent Nebula, and for this, I needed a little help. I applied a 25% layer of OIII data using my monochrome CCD camera to the image to really make that outer shell ‘pop’.

Comet NEOWISE

  • Object Type: Solar System (Comet)
  • Imaging Style: Broadband Wide-Field
  • Camera Type: DSLR/Mirrorless (one-shot-color)

Photographing Comet NEOWISE was an unforgettable experience. The tail of this evaporating iceberg in space was long and beautiful. 

There were thousands of images of Comet NEOWISE taken in July 2020, and some of them were remarkable. I did my best to capture this memorable scene from my backyard using basic equipment.

Comet photography is quite different from traditional deep-sky photography, although there are a few best practices that came in handy. I used my Rokinon 135mm F/2 lens and DSLR to photograph this comet on July 17th, 2020. 

Comet NEOWISE

The best part about photographing this comet was that it did not require an expensive deep-sky imaging rig. A portable star tracker and camera lens worked perfectly to capture this long icy snowball in the sky. 

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer is a dependable, battery-powered, ultra-portable star tracker that can handle up to 11-pounds of gear. I’ve used this little EQ mount with everything from a DSLR and 50mm lens, to a Radian Raptor 61 APO. 

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i

You may be wondering why the comet is lying on its side in this image when most photos show it pointing downward. The silhouetted treeline at the bottom of the photo is actually the side of my neighbor’s tree, and I rotated the frame to capture the Comet lengthwise.

The position and timing of the comet made photographing this celestial event a challenge. It sat rather low in the sky, and there was a limited window of time to capture it in the early morning, or just after dusk. There are many things I would change if I could photograph Comet NEOWISE again, but I will have to wait until it returns to Earth in 8,786.

  • Total Exposure Time: 7 Minutes
  • Details: 32 x 14-seconds
  • Camera: Canon EOS 60Da
  • Telescope/Lens: Rokinon 135mm F/2
  • Filter: None
  • Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer
  • Guide Scope: None
  • Guide Camera: None
  • Acquisition: Remote Shutter Release Cable
  • Integration/Calibration: DeepSkyStacker
  • Processing: Adobe Photoshop 2020

The Planet Mars

  • Object Type: Solar System (Planet)
  • Imaging Style: RGB 
  • Camera Type: Monochrome CMOS 

The Mars Opposition was another amazing celestial event that seemed to further ignite interest in astronomy in 2020. On October 13th, 2020, Mars was at its closest to Earth, and I photographed the planet shortly before this date.

Up until this year, my best photos of Mars were tiny, blurry orange orbs in the sky. I had never captured any interesting details of the planet’s rocky surface before. 

This type of astrophotography requires different acquisition software and a completely different post-processing routine as well. The results were incredible, considering I still have much to learn.

Planet Mars

High magnification planetary imaging is still quite foreign to me, although I have been photographing planets for quite some time. This time, I used a large SCT (Celestron Edge HD 11) and a dedicated astronomy camera that excels in planetary photography.

Celestron Edge HD 11

The most difficult part of the process was painstakingly removing and replacing each RGB filter in front of the camera (and re-focusing each time) to create a full-color image with my monochrome camera. This is exactly why filter wheels exist, I just did not own one at the time. 

The process becomes even more challenging as the planet slowly rotates (some, faster than others), and you realize that the rotation has created a mismatch in terms of surface details from one color to the next. 

NG 6960: The Western Veil Nebula

  • Object Type: Supernova Remnant
  • Imaging Style: Multi-Bandpass Narrowband
  • Camera Type: Dedicated Astronomy Camera (one-shot-color CMOS)

I took several photos with the versatile QHY268C one-shot-color astronomy camera in 2020. It was difficult to choose a favorite, as they all ended up being my best versions of each object to date. 

The Veil Nebula looked especially beautiful when captured with this camera, and I photographed it from every angle possible. The Optolong L-eXtreme filter was made for this target, and I was thrilled with my results using this combo.

The separation between the hydrogen and oxygen gases of this nebula from a light-polluted sky was impressive. If you’ve ever photographed the Veil Nebula using a broad spectrum filter, you’ll know that it can easily get buried underneath a sea of stars.

Western Veil Nebula

The sensor size of the QHY268C is APS-C (crop-sensor), which is quite large in the world of dedicated one-shot-color astronomy cameras. I thoroughly appreciated the field of view this sensor captured, in stunning high-resolution detail.

Although many of my best images of the year were captured using a monochrome camera, one-shot-color cameras continue to be a practical way to complete an image with limited time. In the case of the QHY268C, the image quality doesn’t have to suffer, either.

QHY268C Camera

Messier 31: The Andromeda Galaxy

  • Object Type: Spiral Galaxy
  • Imaging Style: Broadband RGB 
  • Camera Type: DSLR/Mirrorless (one-shot-color)

I rented an Airbnb under Bortle Scale Class 4 skies to photograph the Andromeda Galaxy in October 2020. This sensational broadband galaxy often looks best when photographed without the use of filters. 

Unlike most other galaxies, Andromeda is very large, and you may be surprised to find out that your current camera and telescope configuration will not fit the entire galaxy in a single frame. 

Andromeda Galaxy

This is one of the many sensational images captured using the Radian Raptor 61 apochromatic refractor telescope. This shows off the massive field of view provided at 275mm focal length. The conditions were far from ideal that night, but I am happy with how the photo turned out nevertheless. 

apochromatic refractor telescope

I used my portable Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro GoTo equatorial mount for this photo and took advantage of the autoguiding feature of the mount. The entire imaging rig was very manageable, and one that I will certainly bring on more adventures away from home in the future. 

As for the processing, I have shared an Andromeda Galaxy image processing tutorial in the past, and those techniques are largely unchanged today. 

The Milky Way 

  • Object Type: Milky Way Photography
  • Imaging Style: Wide-Field Nightscape
  • Camera Type: DSLR/Mirrorless (one-shot-color)

This photo was taken on a rare adventure away from home in 2020. My wife Ashley and I rented an Airbnb under Bortle Scale Class 3 skies during new moon. The night sky was jaw-droppingly gorgeous from this location.  

The core of the Milky Way was obscured by trees, but there was a large opening to the sky straight overhead on the property. Luckily, the timing was perfect as Cygnus and Cepheus are full of beautiful nebulae regions. 

The Milky Way

For this photo, I used my Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera with a Sigma 24mm F/1.4 lens attached. This is a spectacular lens for astrophotography, particularly nightscape images like this.  Sigma 24mm F/1.4

I compensated for the apparent motion of the night sky using a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i star tracker. This portable rig is so easy to set up and record wide swaths of the night sky. It is hands-down the best Milky Way Photography setup I’ve ever owned.  

I used a different stacking software for this shot, one that is more suitable for landscape astrophotography. Sequator is a simple-to-use stacking software that does a great job of reducing noise in your image to provide an impressive file to process.

  • Total Exposure Time: 14 Minutes
  • Details: 9 x 90-seconds at ISO 3200
  • Camera: Canon EOS Ra
  • Telescope/Lens: Sigma 24mm F/1.4
  • Filter: None
  • Mount: Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer
  • Guide Scope: None
  • Guide Camera: None
  • Acquisition: Remote Shutter Release Cable
  • Integration/Calibration: Sequator
  • Processing: Adobe Photoshop 2020

NGC 7293: The Helix Nebula

  • Object Type: Planetary Nebula
  • Imaging Style: Multi-Bandpass Narrowband
  • Camera Type: Dedicated Astronomy Camera (one-shot-color CMOS)

The Helix Nebula is one of those deep-sky objects that remind you of why you got into astrophotography. Its iconic shape and bold colors can spark a passion for astronomy and space like few other objects can.

I photographed the Helix Nebula on several occasions in the summer of 2020, yet still didn’t manage to collect enough exposure time to truly do this object justice. This image is not technically amazing by any stretch, but it is still one of the most exciting photos I took all year. 

For this image, I took advantage of the amazing Optolong L-eXtreme filter and QHY268C color camera once more.

Helix Nebula

To achieve these colors, I had to do some selective stretching and color balancing. The outer rim of hydrogen in red/orange is pretty standard, but in my data, I had to pull the greenish/blue area in the center way up. 

The central region of this nebula was much more greenish in the “out-of-the-camera” image. The Optolong L-eXtreme does a great job of separating the important wavelengths of light associated with some of the most popular nebulae in the sky.

Optolong L-eXtreme Filter

This is quite a small target, so plenty of aperture and focal length is needed to really get a good look at the Helix Nebula. 

Final Thoughts

This was hands-down the busiest year of astrophotography I’ve ever had. There were a lot of sleepless nights, numb fingers, and long image processing sessions. My reward? The images in this article, and the countless memorable nights under a clear night sky.

I hope you have gotten some value out of the descriptions of these images, so you can tackle the job yourself. Of course, you do not need to use the exact configuration I did to achieve these results, but at least you will have a benchmark to start from. 

If you have any questions about the astrophotography equipment discussed in this article, please feel free to let me know in the comments. Until next year, clear skies!

best astrophotography images

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Why I Bought the Canon EOS Ra

|Camera|20 Comments

In early May 2020, I decided to purchase a Canon EOS Ra camera from B&H photo. This is Canon’s latest astrophotography camera, and it has some seriously impressive specs (like a  full-frame 30.3 MP astro-modified sensor).

For a complete rundown of the Canon EOS Ra, you can read my full review from January of this year. Essentially, it is a clone of the popular Canon EOS R mirrorless camera, with a specialized IR cut filter optimized for astrophotography.

In this article, I want to discuss why I purchased the EOS Ra, and share my results from the backyard. 

Is the Canon EOS Ra Worth it?

With a price tag of $2500 USD, you’ll want to think long and hard before taking the plunge on a niche camera like the EOS Ra. 

After all, there are plenty of affordable options available in the DSLR line-up, although these are not sensitive to hydrogen-alpha like the Ra is. 

You could modify your DSLR for astrophotography, but unless you’re comfortable dissembling your camera, that task is better left to the professionals.

I considered purchasing a professionally modified Canon EOS 6D Mark II as an upgrade to my Canon EOS Rebel T3i (and Canon EOS 60Da), but the price was not substantially less than a brand new EOS Ra. 

Canon EOS Ra body

I also wanted to “future-proof” myself to a degree, and be able to utilize Canon’s new RF lens mount lineup in the future. 

The EOS R (and RP) were attractive options, but ultimately the ability to record deep-sky images (nebulae regions) sold me on the Ra version.

Another consideration was the ability to utilize the 4K video mode of the EOS Ra. The EOS R version will capture “normal” looking colors in the daytime, while the EOS Ra will have a red cast to them due to the modified IR cut filter.

The EOS R would be a better choice if the camera was primarily to be used for filming my YouTube videos, but this camera is destined for the stars.

Milky Way Photography

The Milky Way. Canon EOS Ra with a Sigma 24mm F/1.4 lens attached. 

I can still use the EOS Ra during the day for photography and filming, but I will need to correct the white balance in post-production.

To be totally honest, I didn’t want to be left behind like I was with the EOS 60Da. This camera quickly sold out and was no longer available unless you could find one used.

I don’t think there will be any new Canon EOS Ra’s left by the end of the year, but we will see. As an example, finding a used Canon EOS 60Da is nearly impossible.

Canon EOS Ra example image

The Heart and Soul Nebula captured using the Canon EOS Ra and Radian Raptor 61 APO.

Compared to a Dedicated Astronomy Camera

Many of you may be in a situation where you are deciding whether to invest in the Canon EOS Ra or a dedicated astronomy camera. I currently shoot with all types of astrophotography cameras from a CMOS one-shot-color, to a monochrome CCD.

Each camera will have its own strengths and weaknesses, and much of the decision comes down to the user experience you are looking for.

DSLR vs. dedicated astronomy camera

For example, a nightscape photographer that is used to shooting with a DSLR or Mirrorless camera on the road will have a hard time justifying the purchase of a dedicated CMOS camera that requires a slew of new software and hardware to run.

Dedicated astronomy cameras have their place, and for many projects, I wouldn’t dream of using the Ra over my Starlight Xpress SX-42 or ZWO ASI533MC Pro.

Rather than a long list of strengths and weaknesses, I’ve highlighted the aspects of each camera (good and bad) that are unique to each one:

Canon EOS Ra 

  • Full-Frame Sensor
  • Battery Powered
  • Portable and Lightweight
  • Native Lens Mount (RF and/or EF with adapter)
  • No External Hardware Required to Take Pictures
  • Produces RAW/Jpeg files Instantly
  • Live View Display Screen
  • Framing/Focusing Can Be Done On-Camera
  • All Camera Settings Can Be Adjusted On-Camera
  • No On-Board Cooling

Dedicated Astronomy Camera

  • On-Board Cooling (TEC)
  • Back-Illuminated Sensor
  • Low Noise Images
  • Designed for Long Exposure Imaging
  • Calibration Frames Easier to Replicate/Produce
  • Full-Frame Models (Eg. ZWO ASI 6200) Are Expensive
  • Requires Additional Hardware/Software to Run (eg. PC, ASIair)
  • No On-Camera Control (Live View, Camera Settings)
  • Requires External Power Source
  • Produces FIT files that Must be Converted to Edit

In the end, I would recommend a DSLR or Mirrorless camera to a nightscape photographer who uses lenses, and a dedicated astronomy camera to someone that primarily shoots through a telescope at home.

There is a third category of imager (that I am a part of), that enjoys the DSLR/Mirrorless experience too much to stop using them for all types of astrophotography. 

Compared to the EOS 60Da?

The Canon EOS 60Da is a fantastic astrophotography camera. I’ve taken countless images through my telescope with the 60Da, and it is currently my best DSLR camera for astrophotography.

Canon EOS 60Da

The Canon EOS 60Da DSLR.

Until the Ra came along in November 2019, the 60Da was Canon’s latest official camera for night sky imaging.

However, the features and specifications of this 2012 camera have become outdated, although many of them are largely ignored for long-exposure deep-sky imaging.

For astrophotography purposes, the biggest differences between the two cameras are the size of the sensor, and the lens mounting system.

  • Canon EOS 60Da Sensor: 18 MP CMOS (APS-C)
  • Canon EOS Ra Sensor: 30.2 MP CMOS (Full-Frame)

In the end, chances are that many owners of modified DSLR cameras will not feel the need to upgrade to the Canon EOS Ra.

Make no mistake, a talented amateur astrophotographer will be able to produce results as impressive as ones taken with the Ra using an affordable, astro-modified DSLR.

Telescope setup

My wide-field deep-sky astrophotography setup.

Results Through a Telescope

I recently attached the Canon EOS Ra to my William Optics RedCat 51 refractor in the backyard. A wide-field instrument like this really utilizes the full-frame sensor of the camera.

I chose to photograph a “fool-proof” area of the night sky, the Sadr region. At a focal length of 250mm, several deep-sky nebulae objects are available. 

The image below includes 15 x 5-minute exposures at ISO 3200. The images were stacked and registered in DeepSkyStacker, and processed in Adobe Photoshop 2020.

Triad Ultra Filter test

Nebulae in Cygnus. Triad Ultra Filter and Canon EOS Ra (Click for larger image).

The Radian Telescopes Triad Ultra filter is a superb match for the EOS Ra, and I plan I using it extensively with this camera this summer. It possesses the qualities of a narrowband filter, with the added ability to create “almost” natural-looking colors (with some color correcting in post). 

When reviewing the data shot using the EOS Ra and Triad Ultra filter, the colors focus at the same point. I regularly process my images on a per-channel basis, and often have to control the star size in certain channels (usually blue). 

That is not the case when shooting with this filter as each channel looks sharp in a single RGB image. 

Triad Ultra Quad-Band Filter

Photo Details:

  • Total Exposure: 1 Hour, 15 Minutes
  • Integration: 15 x 5-minutes @ ISO 3200
  • Calibration Frames: 15 Darks, 15 Flats, 15 Bias
  • Image Acquisition: Astro Photography Tool
  • Pre-Processing: DeepSkyStacker
  • Final Editing: Adobe Photoshop 2020

Equipment List:

Tips for EOS Ra Owners

Astro Photography Tool really shines when you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless camera. The latest version recognizes the EOS Ra, and I can do important tasks like framing and focusing on my laptop.

Alternatively, you can use the beautiful articulating LCD screen on the Ra.

You may just choose to focus and frame your target directly on the camera rather than through software on your computer. Use the helpful 30x live view to really nail your focus.

I use a Canon EF to EOS R adapter (picture below) to connect my camera to the telescope. You will also need this to pair the EOS R with any existing Canon EF-mount lenses.

EF To EOS-R Adapter

The Canon EF – EOS R lens mount adapter.

An important camera setting you’ll need to use when the Canon EOS Ra is attached to a telescope is to enable the “Release Shutter W/O Lens“. The camera doesn’t recognize your telescope as a lens, so you’ll need to set this to take a picture.

Another tip I should mention is that the camera comes with a USB Type-C to Type-C cable, so if you plan on connecting the camera to your laptop, you’ll need a USB Type-C to USB 2.0 cable or an adapter.

Lastly, you’ll want to use the Adobe DNG converter to create RAW files that your pre-processing software will recognize. At the time of writing, the RAW CR3 files the camera produces are not recognized by pre-processing software such as DeepSkyStacker.

Adobe DNG converter

The Adobe DNG Converter software.

Final Thoughts

A lot of people seem to think that the EOS Ra is an odd choice considering the price tag and the fact that it’s not a dedicated Astro camera.

I totally get it, and I don’t think it is for everyone. Not even close. I think this camera was designed to meet the needs of a very specific type of amateur astrophotographer.

One that has progressed through this hobby using DSLR’S, lenses, and wide-field refractors.  

With about 10 images using the Ra under my belt now, I can confidently tell you that this camera feels like it was designed just for me.

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Canon EOS Ra Review

|Camera|18 Comments

The Canon EOS Ra camera is Canon’s first full-frame mirrorless camera dedicated to astrophotography. It is suitable for deep-sky imaging with a telescope, and night sky photography with a camera lens.

Based off of the extremely popular EOS R, the EOS Ra boasts unique features such as 30x magnification (viewfinder and Live View) for precise focusing, and roughly 4x more transmission sensitivity to the hydrogen-alpha (Hα) wavelength.

  • Name: Canon EOS Ra
  • Based on: Canon EOS R
  • Release Date: November 2019
  • Type: Mirrorless System
  • Resolution: 30.3 MP
  • Sensor size: Full-Frame
  • Sensor type: CMOS (specialized IR filter)
  • Lens Mount: Canon RF
  • Features: 30X Live View, Vari-angle LCD touchscreen

In the following video, I share my results using the Canon EOS Ra camera attached to a small telescope. This camera is suitable for high-resolution deep-sky astrophotography using a variety of optical instruments.

Canon EOS Ra Review

In late December 2019, Canon USA reached out to me to test their new astrophotography camera, the Canon EOS Ra. The “a” in the name of this camera stands for astrophotography.

That is because, unlike the regular Canon EOS R, this camera is 4X more sensitive to the h-alpha wavelength of the visible spectrum (656.3 nm). This helps collect the important deep red hues of many nebulae in the night sky. 

As Canon puts it, positioned in front of the CMOS imaging sensor, The EOS Ra’s infrared-cutting filter is modified to permit approximately 4x as much transmission of hydrogen-alpha rays at the 656nm wavelength, vs. standard EOS R cameras.” 

Canon EOS Ra Astrophotography

The North America Nebula. 5+ Hour Exposure Using the Canon EOS Ra.

The Canon EOS Ra also includes astrophotography-friendly features such as a unique 30X live-view mode on the vari-angle touchscreen LCD display screen. It’s a color astrophotography camera that was intended to be used for both deep-sky astrophotography, and wide-angle nightscapes.

In this article, I will review the Canon EOS Ra from the perspective of an “ordinary” amateur backyard deep-sky astrophotography enthusiast. As with every review I post, I was not compensated to endorse the product in any way. All of my opinions about this camera are my own. 

Before using the EOS Ra for astrophotography, I previously enjoyed using Canon’s last astrophotography camera, the (APS-C sensor) Canon EOS 60Da DSLR. The EOS Ra, on the other hand, is a full-frame mirrorless camera. 

Canon EOS Ra body

The Canon EOS Ra is a full-frame mirrorless astrophotography camera that is capable of producing APOD worthy astrophotography images. It is not a “one-trick-pony”, so to speak, as many of the other options available to amateurs are. Not only can the Ra take incredible deep-sky images through a telescope, but also using a wide variety of lenses, and without computer control. 

Having a camera with a long-lasting internal battery and a touchscreen display means that you are able to make adjustments to your exposures and key settings on the fly. You do not rely on third-party software to run this camera, although it can be used with popular software such as Astro Photography Tool, or Canon EOS Utilities.

The tactile experience of the EOS Ra camera body inspires you to focus on creative photography that excites you, and less on micro-adjustments and graphs on a computer screen. To be perfectly honest, the Canon EOS Ra is just more fun to use than any other astrophotography camera I’ve experienced. 

Orion Nebula using the EOS Ra

The Orion Nebula using the Canon EOS Ra (40 x 4-minutes at ISO 800).

Camera Features

At the heart of the Canon EOS Ra, is a 30.2 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor. That’s a massive 36 x 24mm sensor, an uncommonly large size in the realm of astrophotography cameras.

This translates into an extremely wide field of view when used with a compact refractor telescope. It utilizes the native focal length of the optical instrument rather than cropping the image as smaller sensors do. 

So, if you use a telescope like the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100, you are shooting at the listed focal length of 550mm. This determines the magnification of the deep-sky object and the resolution of your image. 

The EOS Ra includes all of the advanced features of the EOS R, including a self-cleaning sensor unit, dust delete data function, and an OLED color electronic viewfinder

Canon EOS Ra box

Through this viewfinder, you can monitor key camera settings including exposure information, battery level, ISO speed, histogram, white balance, and much more. 

Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity are standard features of the EOS Ra, too. Does your dedicated astronomy camera offer this? 

 The Canon EOS Ra includes Dual Pixel CMOS autofocus. This advanced focusing system found in the original EOS R will not be utilized in many astrophotography-related shoots, but for video work, AF modes like Face+Tracking are incredibly useful. 

Canon EOS Ra camera body

Specifications

  • Format: Full-Frame
  • Sensor Type: CMOS
  • Sensor Size: 36 x 24mm
  • Pixel Size: 5.36 microns
  • Max. Resolution: 6720 x 4480 (30.2 MP) 
  • ISO Sensitivity: 100 – 40000
  • Lens Mount: Canon RF
  • Video Modes: 4K up to 30p, HD up to 60p
  • Memory Card: Single SD
  • Weight: 1.45 lbs.

When comparing the price of the Canon EOS Ra to a dedicated astronomy camera, consider the sheer amount of features this camera has that the latter does not (onboard touch-screen LCD, WiFi, 4K video, dual pixel AF, etc.). Will you use all of these advanced features for deep-sky astrophotography through a telescope? Probably not.

But the Canon EOS Ra is a multi-function camera that was designed to meet the needs of a broad range of amateur astrophotographers from wide-angle nightscape shooters to prime focus deep-sky imagers.

RF Lens Mount

The Canon EOS Ra features the new Canon RF lens mount, which allows you to use the latest RF mount lenses from Canon including the RF 85mm F/1.2L. If you already own Canon glass with the EF lens mount system, you simply need to use the EF-EOS R lens mount adapter to attach them to the EOS Ra.

Yes, the adapter is an added expense to use your existing Canon glass, but you will now be able to experience the impressive RF Lenses available. According to Canonwatch.com, the RF lenses are an improvement over their EF counterparts, as shown in the DxOMark testing (at least on the RF 50mm F/1.2L lens).  

RF - EOS R lens mount adapter

The Canon EF – EOS R lens mount adapter for EF-mount lenses. 

Canon EOS Ra review

Canon EOS Ra with RF 85mm F/1.2L lens attached.

I won’t go too into detail about the 85mm F/1.2 lens Canon included with the EOS Ra for my testing, but an 85mm prime is certainly an attractive focal length for astrophotographers. In terms of deep-sky imaging, this lens is best enjoyed under dark skies rather than an orange-zone backyard in the city.

Test Images using the 85mm F/1.2 Lens

I had a brief opportunity to test the Canon RF 85mm F/1.2 under semi-dark skies (Bortle Scale Class 5) on a moonless night. The photo I captured that night (watch the video) was really nothing special, until you realize that it was accomplished in about 10 minutes. 

Nightscape photographers with access to a dark sky site and enough time will capture amazing images with the EOS Ra this spring. Milky Way season should be very interesting. 

nightscape photography example

The Heart and Soul Nebulae, and the Double Cluster in Perseus. 10 x 30-seconds at ISO 800. 

The image quality of the photos taken using the EOS Ra and 85mm F/1.2L lens was impressive. Each exposure was 30-seconds long, and the noise was minimal despite using ISO 800. 

The following example image shows the star quality you can expect using this lens at F/1.6, and it is quite impressive if you ask me. Only the top corners show stars that are not absolute pin-points, which is admirable considering the monster-sized image sensor of this mirrorless camera. 

Image quality

Click the image for a large version of the image to inspect the star quality.

New RAW Image Format

The Canon EOS Ra shoots RAW images in .CR3 format. This slight number change (from the previous .CR2 format of Canon DSLR cameras) is actually a big deal. All of the software you use for registration, calibration, and image editing must be able to work with this new file format. 

For example, the pre-processing software I use (DeepSkyStacker) accepts .CR2 RAW image files, but not .CR3. That means that I must convert the native RAW image format from the Canon EOS Ra to a .TIF file for the application to recognize it. 

Adobe Photoshop 2020 has no trouble opening up the .CR3 files in Adobe Camera Raw or Bridge (or Lightroom for that matter), but I still use DeepSkyStacker for the registration and calibration stages of my images. 

CR3 format

The .CR3 RAW image format is not yet supported by popular stacking software like DeepSkyStacker.

This adds additional time to the processing stages of astrophotography, and I hope that the software available at the time of writing “catches up” to the new image format. PixInsight users will also need to wait for LibRaw to support CR3 files to integrate data (the PixInsight RAW format support module uses LibRaw as a back-end to support digital camera raw formats). 

A potential workaround for this matter is to register all of your exposures in Adobe Photoshop, but I am unaware of a way to calibrate images with dark frames or flat frames using this method. 

Full Frame CMOS Sensor

The full-frame CMOS hydrogen-alpha sensitive sensor is likely the biggest appeal of the camera overall. If you want to shoot using the field-of-view you are accustomed to with a crop-sensor camera body, you have the option of switching to “crop” mode in the settings. 

Until now, the only full-frame camera sensors I had ever used for astrophotography were the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, and the Canon EOS 6D Mark II. Both of these camera bodies, however, were stock. 

With the EOS Ra, I was finally able to utilize the large image circles of my apochromatic refractor telescopes like the William Optics RedCat 51 and Radian Raptor 61.

You can manually change the cropping/aspect ratio of the image in the camera settings if desired. Most photographers will simply leave the camera in “FULL” (full-frame) mode, but the option of capturing images at a 1.6X (crop-sensor), 1:1, 4:3, or even 16:9 is there.

image crop

Setting the Cropping/Aspect Ratio on-camera.

A full-frame (6720 x 4480 pixel) sensor demands a flat field and large image circle, which should be kept in mind when considering the EOS Ra. If your optical instrument does not have an image circle large enough to accommodate the large sensor, you could always manually set the crop factor on the camera as shown above.

Key Camera Settings

For those using the EOS Ra for astrophotography, there are a few essential camera settings to remember. The most important, in my opinion, is to turn off the built-in long exposure noise reduction and the high ISO noise reduction.

This is a hot topic with amateur astrophotographers and night photographers, as some nightscape shooters that process single exposures may prefer it. For deep-sky imagers that stack multiple exposures, however, you will not want the camera to do any noise reduction before you integrate the data.

If you’re looking for a reliable way to reduce noise in your astrophotos, I recommend giving the Topaz Labs DeNoise AI software a try. 

camera settings

Most astrophotographers will want to turn off long exposure noise reduction and high ISO speed NR.

The other important setting to remember is to ensure you have enabled the setting that allows the camera to take an exposure without a lens attached. When you have connected the EOS Ra to a telescope, it will not recognize that the optical tube is acting as a lens. The feature can be found in the custom settings menu, and it is called Enable Release Shutter w/o lens.

For a detailed look at all of the features this camera includes, you have the option of spending a weekend reading the EOS R Advanced User Guide

Imaging Sessions and Results

If you are like me, a typical astrophotography imaging session will vary in length depending on the amount of clear sky time available. Some sessions last less than an hour due to incoming clouds. The EOS Ra excels in these situations, as a quick setup process is one of its specialties.

The Canon EOS Ra includes a feature I have never experienced before, one that allows you to take exposures longer than 30-seconds in bulb mode. This is something amateur astrophotography enthusiasts can appreciate, especially when using this camera with a portable star tracker such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, or iOptron SkyGuider Pro. 

Being able to quickly set up the Canon EOS Ra and a wide-field lens on a small star tracker means that you can enjoy spur-of-the-moment astrophotography sessions while traveling. For me, this means being able to escape the light pollution from home and bring the kit to a dark sky site. 

Canon RF 85mm F/1.2

The Canon EOS Ra mounted to a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer at the side of the road.

I find that camera lenses of all focal lengths are best used under dark skies. The wide-field nature of most camera lenses can create challenging image processing scenarios under light-polluted skies, especially if no light pollution filter is used.

Gradients in the night sky due to the glow of the city can make it very difficult to neutralize the background sky across large areas. That is not to say that it isn’t possible to correct harsh gradients due to light pollution in Photoshop, but it can be very time consuming to achieve a natural result. 

The best remedy for this scenario is to try and reserve your wide-field, camera lens astrophotography for dark sky excursions during the new moon phase. 

Deep-Sky Imaging Through a Telescope

If you want to watch me experience the thrill of unboxing the EOS Ra for the first time, and some backstory behind my image of the Orion Nebula shared at the top of this post, feel free to watch the following video. If my music selection or the sound of my voice annoys you to no end, read on.

For many people using the Ra for astrophotography, you will be capturing a sequence of long-exposure images through a telescope (Here are the ones I recommend). This is standard practice for creating images with a strong signal-to-noise ratio. 

But to do this, you will need to expose your images for longer than 30-seconds, and automate the process to maximize your time under the stars. You have a few options here, including a remote shutter release cable, third-party acquisition software, or using the handy standalone feature on the EOS Ra mentioned above.

The EOS Ra includes a USB Type-C input connection (this is the cable you’ll want), which allows you to control the camera from your computer if desired. You can also run a sequence of exposures using a remote shutter release cable. I was delighted to see that the remote shutter cable input was the same one used on my Canon EOS Rebel DSLR’s. 

deep sky astrophotography

Using Astro Photography Tool (APT) to run an imaging session with the Canon EOS Ra.

For my deep-sky imaging sessions attached to a telescope, I chose to use Astro Photography Tool (APT) to run my deep-sky imaging sessions with the EOS Ra. The camera was recognized by the latest edition of APT (as a Canon EOS R), which meant I could use the software to help focus the camera and telescope, present a live-view image, and set a sequence of long-exposure images. 

The CMOS sensor of the EOS Ra is so sensitive using high ISO’s, that the live-view image mirrored the experience of a dedicated astronomy camera. Dim stars, bright nebulae, and galaxies appear in real-time. This makes finding and framing deep-space targets much easier at the beginning of your session.

Focusing with 30X Live View

Focusing the Canon EOS Ra on dim stars is easier than with any DSLR I have used in the past. This is largely due to the new 30X live-view mode, which allows me to really look closely at how tight the stars are. 

When using a Bahtinov mask, the process is even more precise as you can see the subtle changes in the central diffraction spike as you focus in and out in real-time. The vari-angle display screen makes it easy to tilt the display to a comfortable angle when the telescope is pointed upwards. 

The touchscreen means that you can quickly scroll across the frame with a finger swipe to find more stars or your deep-sky target in the field. I found the focusing experience on the camera body itself to be almost as practical as feeding the information to my computer screen using camera control software. 

Wide-angle nightscapes shooters or deep-sky astrophotographers running their imaging sessions on-camera will benefit most from this feature.

focusing with a telescope

4K Video at 30 FPS

One of the features many people like to ignore when complaining about how expensive this camera is, is the 4K 30 fps video mode. That’s stunningly high-resolution video footage from a full-frame mirrorless sensor.

Is this feature much less likely to be used by astrophotography enthusiasts? Perhaps. Being somewhat of a videographer myself (I have filmed and edited over 100 videos on YouTube), I consider this to be an exciting option – and what I would put to good use.

In fact, I tested the Canon EOS Ra’s video abilities for some daytime filming for one of my videos. I was quite astonished to observe that the colors were not far off of a “normal-looking” scene despite having nearly 4x the sensitivity to H-Alpha over a standard EOS R.

Surely a natural color correction could be achieved in post, especially if the video is shot in a neutral/flat color profile. The EOS Ra includes a handy color temperature compensation feature that corrects the images/videos’ current white balance setting. The adjustment settings are a blue/amber bias, or magenta/green bias with 9 levels of control for each.

EOS Ra 4K video mode

The Canon EOS Ra is a capable video camera with impressive options.

There are a staggering amount of video recording options on this camera, maxing out at 30P shooting in 4K (ALL-I compression). The most practical choice for my style of filming and editing is to shoot in 4K at 23.97 FPS in IPB format.

Shooting at 4K in ALL-I format demands a lot of CPU power and RAM to edit.

Attaching the EOS Ra to a Telescope

For anyone that has ever attached a DSLR camera to a telescope using a t-ring and an adapter, you’ll just need the RF to EOS R lens mount adapter to connect the Ra to a telescope.

This provides the right spacing needed between the camera sensor of the Ra and your field flattener/reducer. You simply thread your existing t-ring to the EF-EOS R adapter and attach the camera as you normally would.

This was the exact configuration I used when I attached the Canon EOS Ra to the field flattener of a William Optics Fluorostar 132 refractor. As you may be able to tell from the photo, the lens mount adapter adds the exact right amount of spacing between the CMOS sensor inside of the mirrorless camera body, and the glass element of the flattener/reducer.

attach EOS Ra to telescope

The EOS Ra attached to the field flattener of my telescope using the RF-EOS-R adapter and a Canon t-ring. 

I also attached the Ra to a smaller refractor, the William Optics RedCat 51. This was a promising imaging combination for wide-field projects. This telescope offers an incredibly wide 250mm focal length and utilizes the glorious full-frame sensor of the Ra. 

My favorite aspect of this setup, however, was how simple it was to put together and start imaging. This is the type of imaging kit that would be perfect for deep-sky astrophotography while traveling. 

mirrorless camera and telescope

The Canon EOS Ra attaches to the RedCat 51 easily using the EF – EOS R adapter and Canon T-Ring.  

Using Filters with the EOS Ra

If you are planning on using a filter with the Canon EOS Ra, there are limited options available. Astronomik offers a CLS filter (city light suppression) for the Canon EOS R (and Ra) in a clip-format. I was not aware of this broadband light pollution filter until it was brought to my attention in the comments section of this article (thank you)! 

The great thing about body-mounted filters is the option of using them with a camera lens attached. It also comes in handy in telescope configurations where there is no convenient location for a threaded filter. 

Astronomik EOS Ra filter

The Astronomik CLS XL-Clip Filter for EOS R Bodies. 

For a wide variety of filter choices (such as narrowband filters), try using a 2″ round mounted filter in the t-ring adapter or field flattener if possible.

The first image I captured using this camera through a telescope did not use a filter in place of the sensor. There was no practical location for any of my 2″ filters within the imaging train. 

The second time around, however, I was able to thread a 48mm round mounted filter to the inside of the camera adapter of the William Optics RedCat 51 (Optolong L-eNhance). 

Optolong L-eNhance

Astrophotography Results

When it comes to testing cameras, I often get an overwhelming feeling of “imposter syndrome”. I am not a professional photographer by any means, and my test images often leave a lot of room for improvement. I partially blame the imaging conditions I shoot in, which regularly include high clouds and a lot of moisture, on a good night.

Regardless, I like to think that I make the most of my situation. The images I take from my Bortle Scale Class 6/7 backyard are a realistic example of what you can expect. Here is an image captured using the Canon EOS Ra and a small refractor telescope (William Optics RedCat 51).  

Canon EOS Ra example image

The Flaming Star Nebula and Tadpole Nebula in Auriga. Canon EOS Ra and 51mm refractor. 

Image Details:

  • Total Exposure: 2 Hours, 30 Minutes (50 x 3-minutes)
  • ISO: 1600
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Filter: Optolong L-eNhance
  • Telescope: William Optics RedCat 51
  • Stacking and Calibration: DeepSkyStacker
  • Processing: Adobe Photoshop 2020

The image of the Flaming Star Nebula region shown above was captured on a night of average seeing, with a 25% illuminated moon present. The filter used was a dual bandpass filter that helps isolates the light emitted in the hydrogen-alpha and oxygen wavelengths of the visible spectrum. 

You can see this image in higher resolution on AstroBin. For a complete breakdown of the way I process my astrophotography images, consider downloading my image processing guide

Noise Performance

It is no surprise that many people would like to know how the Canon EOS Ra handles noise, particularly when using higher ISO values of ISO 800 or more. This camera is not cooled, which means that it is subject to thermal noise due to a warm ambient temperature.

All of my testing with this camera took place during a Canadian winter, so the camera never really got above 5-10 degrees Celcius. However, even under these conditions, the noise performance seemed better than that of my Canon EOS 60Da.

Here is a test image for you to review up close (click on the image). You’ll notice that the noise is minimal in a single 3-minute exposure at ISO 800. Furthermore, this noise is reduced significantly through image stacking.

ISO noise performance

I do not see noise being a problem in the warmer months with this camera, as long as you stack your images to improve the signal to noise ratio. 

Alan Dyer (in this Sky and Telescope article) reported that when using the Canon EOS Ra with higher ISO levels, it exhibits noise that is as good as, if not slightly lower than Canon’s 6D MkII (despite the 6D Mark II’s larger pixels). 

Final Thoughts

The Canon EOS Ra stole my heart from the very moment I revealed the California Nebula on the astrophotography-themed box. In the past, I have professed my love for Canon’s astrophotography cameras such as the Canon EOS 60Da. 

The experience I have had with the EOS Ra was full of memorable moments under the stars. The type of astrophotography that this camera inspires reminds me of why I got into this crazy hobby in the first place.

Now, I have not experienced Nikon’s full-frame astrophotography camera (the D810A DSLR), nor have I ever used a full-frame mirrorless camera from Sony such as the popular A7. So take that for what it’s worth, this is not a detailed comparison between competing cameras in this category.

EOS R for astrophotography

The only negative aspects of the camera I have found are that the large full-frame sensor can result in substantial vignetting with certain optical systems, and the lack of compatibility in certain software to the new .CR3 file format. If you own a telescope that does not feature an image circle designed for full-frame cameras, you will need to crop your images.

Hopefully, DeepSkyStacker will update soon with the ability to stack, register, and calibrate .CR3 RAW images. Other third-party applications will need to support this file type too, for the best overall experience with the Ra.

The Adobe DNG Converter is a great workaround for the time being, as this tool converts all of the files quickly. DeepSkyStacker accepts Raw DNG files, and you can integrate your data as you normally would. 

Adobe DNG converter

Use the Adobe DNG Converter to create Raw files that DeepSkyStacker will recognize.

All in all, the EOS Ra is a monumental step up from Canon’s previous astrophotography inspired camera. Fans of the DSLR/Mirrorless camera experience (especially if you own existing Canon glass), will adore the EOS Ra. I purchased my Canon EOS Ra at B&H Photo Video

what's in the box

Related Post:

Is the Canon EOS Ra Worth the Money?

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ZWO ASI533MC Pro (First Look)

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The ZWO ASI533MC Pro is a one-shot-color (OSC) dedicated astronomy camera designed for deep-sky astrophotography. Over the past 8 years, I have had the pleasure of testing many astrophotography cameras, from entry-level DSLRs to cooled, monochrome CCD’s. 

The camera you choose for astrophotography will determine the types of subjects in the night sky that you will photograph. In the case of the ZWO ASI533MC Pro, the subjects will likely include deep-sky objects including large nebulae. 

ZWO reached out to me directly with an opportunity to test an early version of the ASi533MC Pro. I initially thought it would be strikingly similar to my previous color astronomy camera, but as I spent more time reviewing the data the subtle differences became evident. 

Previously, I have enjoyed using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro, and took some of my best astrophotography images to date with it. Like the 294MC Pro, this astrophotography comes in a color version only. 

astrophotography camera

In this article, I will do my best to share real results using this astrophotography camera from my backyard in the city. The images shared on this page were captured using a 100mm refractor (Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO) riding on an equatorial telescope mount. 

My backyard is classified as a class 6/7 on the Bortle Scale, which is considerably light-polluted. I rely on filters to photograph objects in space from the comfort of my home. 

If you find this article useful, please consider signing up for my newsletter to get notified when I share new articles. 

astrophotography

Images captured using the ASI533MC Pro.

The ZWO ASI533MC Pro

The ASI533MC Pro is ZWO’s latest OSC camera, and it’s equipped with a 9MP Sony IMX533 CMOS sensor. This camera sensor is quite different from the one in the ASI294 I am used to. 

This one is a 1″ square (11.1mm x 11.1mm) format with a 3008 x 3008-pixel resolution. The pixel size is 3.76um, which determines the pixel scale you can expect to realize with your imaging system. 

ZWO ASI533MC Pro

When comparing a dedicated astronomy camera to a DSLR or Mirrorless camera, there are a number of key differences. The biggest one is cooling. 

This ZWO ASI533MC Pro has a built-in TEC (thermoelectric cooler) that requires a 12V power source to run. This allows the sensor to reach as much as -35 Celsius below the ambient temperature. 

This can dramatically reduce the amount of noise recorded in your images. If you have ever tried to take a long exposure image using a high ISO with your DSLR on a hot summer night, you’ll know why this feature is so important.

Another big difference between a dedicated astronomy camera and a DSLR/Mirrorless system is the back-illuminated CMOS sensor. This design is common in astronomy cameras because it can improve sensitivity and reduce noise.

Video

If you would like to see how I have the camera connected to my telescope and get an inside look at my first run with the ZWO ASI533MC Pro, please watch the following video:

Based on the comments for this video, a lot of people wanted to see a comparison between the ASI533MC Pro and the ASI294MC Pro I was previously using. For the most useful comparison, I will need to shoot the same target (Horsehead Nebula) using the ASI533MC Pro without the APEX 0.65 reducer. 

Unfortunately, I have not had another clear night to test this configuration, but the Stellarium sensor view diagrams further down this article should help. 

I have put together the following comparison graphic with an overlay of the native field of view you can expect with the 533 sensor.

ASI533 ASI294 comparison

The sensor size and resolution of the 533MC Pro is an attractive choice for amateur astrophotographers that wish to photograph mid-size deep-sky objects with refractors in the 400-600mm range. 

ASI553MC Pro vs. ASI294MC Pro

One of the key differences between the ASI533MC Pro and the ASI294MC Pro is that there is zero amp glow in the 533. I was very comfortable seeing amp glow in my light frames on the 294, as they were a cinch to remove using calibration frames. 

However, the topic of amp glow seems to come up more than I would have expected in the astrophotography community, so it is obviously an issue for some imagers. 

I won’t go into detail with all of the specifications for this camera. Partly because you can discover all of these details yourself on the ASI533MC Pro product page, and partly because I am incapable of providing an intelligent description of why 14bit ADC is important. 

For convenience, I have included the handy spec breakdown graphic ZWO puts together for all of their CMOS astrophotography cameras. 

camera specifications

This camera shares some similar qualities to the ASI183MC Pro, with the biggest (noticeable) differences being in resolution, sensor shape, and read noise. ZWO has shared a comparison chart between the ASI183MC (and Mono) and the ASI533MC Pro on their website.  

I did not notice an obvious improvement in read noise between the ASI533MC Pro and the ASI294MC Pro, but I did notice that the amp glow was completely gone. I always use dark frame calibration in the stacking process to help create an image with a stronger signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), so the noise present in the individual light frames is not something I pay a lot of attention to.

Connecting the Camera

For my testing, I controlled the camera using Astro Photography Tool (APT). Before connecting the camera using APT, I downloaded the necessary drivers to run the camera on my computer from the ZWO website. This includes the updated ASI ASCOM driver, which was due for an update since the last time I ran through this process. 

After connected the camera in APT, I set the Gain and Offset settings to Unity Gain, a setting I have found to work best for my sky conditions and the filters I use most often. 

how to connect the camera

Controlling the ZWO ASI533MC Pro using Astro Photography Tool. 

It was strange to see a completely square preview image out of this ZWO camera after using the 4/3″ sensor ASI294MC Pro for so long.

The camera cooled very quickly, and the 256MB DDR3 buffer ensured that my live-view text exposures appeared on screen for framing and focusing. I usually use a 5-second loop when finding and framing my deep-sky target. 

With the duo-bandpass filter in place, objects that glow with hydrogen gas jump off the screen in a short exposure. This makes framing your subject much easier if you are not utilizing plate-solving to set up your imaging plan. 

Image Scale and Resolution

The aspects of this camera that I can appreciate and understand are the image scale and resolution. The pixel size of the AS533MC Pro can (in theory) create higher-resolution images of nebulae and galaxies than I was used to with the ASI294MC Pro. 

The field of view using my refractors has changed significantly as well. Take a look at the image comparisons created in Stellarium with the sensor sizes of the 533 and 294 entered in. 

Here is a look at the native FOV you can expect using the ZWO ASI533MC Pro with a Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO refractor:

ASI533 Field of View

The field of view using the ASI533 with a 550mm focal length refractor. 

Now, here is the same target, using the same telescope, but using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro:

ASI294MC Pro FOV

The field of view using the ASI294 with a 550mm focal length refractor. 

The backspacing diagram on the ZWO website lists that the camera sensor is to be 55mm from the sensor to the field flattener. For the APEX 0.65X reducer/flattener I was using, this distance increased to 58mm as directed by Starizona. 

This is a specific distance recommended for this particular telescope and reducer combination. In most cases, stick with the listed 55mm of back focus for your camera. 

It was very easy to create this spacing using the included 11mm ring on the ASI533MC Pro, the Starizona adapter and the filter slider drawer.

back spacing for ASI533

First Impressions

It seems as though ZWO really wants you to try this camera out with a dual-bandpass narrowband filter, as they are currently (at the time of writing) including a duo-band filter with the camera. 

I was not sent the ZWO duo-band filter and opted to use the Optolong L-eNhance filter with this camera in the backyard. Dual-bandpass narrowband imaging with a color camera has quickly become one of my favorite ways to photograph the night sky from the city.

I chose two targets to photograph using the ASI533MC Pro, the Horsehead Nebula and Flame Nebula in Orion, and NGC 7822 in Cepheus. My first night out with the ASI533MC Pro was very cloudy for most of the night. I ended up with just 13 x 4-minute sub-exposures on my target. 

This is not enough integration time for a quality astrophoto, but it did give me a great idea of the image scale of this IMX533 sensor.

Horsehead Nebula in Orion

13 x 4-minutes (52-minutes total exposure) at Unity Gain using the ZWO ASI533MC Pro.

In this image, I simply did not have enough signal to take a fair look at the data. Two nights later, however, I was able to collect a healthy amount of light on another nebula target, NGC 7822.

This time, I shot 30 x 5-minute exposures (again, at Unity Gain) for a grand total of 2.5 hours in one-shot-color. Dark frame subtraction was applied to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of the stacked image, and I was finally able to see what the ASI533MC Pro could really do.

The following image was captured through the same telescope system shown in my video, including the Starizona APEX 0.65 reducer.

Example image using ZWO ASI533MC Pro

30 x 5-minutes (2.5 hours total exposure) at Unity Gain using the ZWO ASI533MC Pro.

Rosette Nebula

The Rosette Nebula (11 x 5-minutes) at Unity Gain using the ZWO ASI533MC Pro. 

As I mentioned earlier, one of the key differences between the ASI533 and ASI294 is the resolution. The pixel scale using my optical system has changed due to the smaller pixels (3.76 um) on the ASI533MC Pro sensor.  

To my surprise, I did see a noticeable difference in resolution in the images taken using the ASI533MC Pro. It is difficult to illustrate this in an image shown on my website, but the added resolution became obvious as I spent time processing the image of NGC 7822 up-close. 

I believe that the image of the red-channel (with 25% green mixed in for dynamic range) illustrates the impressive resolution of this camera.

better resolution

The resolution of the ASI533MC Pro was impressive using my optical system. 

I am excited to try this camera on the Rosette Nebula in the coming months. The field of view (with the 0.65 reducer in place) looks to be a perfect fit for this object. 

Who This Camera is For

As with most dedicated astronomy cameras, the overall practicality of the ASI533MC pro will depend on the optical system you plan on using it with. For those of you that shoot with wide-field refractors as I often do, I think you will be pleasantly surprised with the quality of the data you collect. 

With the 550mm focal length of Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 APO, the field of view and pixel scale was a good fit. Now, as many have pointed out, I changed the native pixel scale of this telescope by using the Starizona APEX 0.65 reducer

If you are unfamiliar with the pixel scale formula, here it is: 

pixel size (3.76) / focal length (550) x 206 = 1.4

With the Starizona 0.65X Reducer:

pixel size (3.76) / focal length (550) x 206 = 2.16

In the amateur astrophotography community, a general rule of thumb is to use a pixel scale that is between 1.0 to 2.0 to be “well-sampled”. This is simply a rough guideline and should not be taken too literally.

Using this guideline, the pixel scale of the Esprit 100 + 0.65 means that my images are under-sampled (blocky). If the image looks too blocky for you (see the full-res version on Astrobin), then perhaps this camera is not a good fit for you. Me? I think it’s just right. 

The image of NGC 7822 shown below was particularly exciting for me to process. This is partly because it is a new deep-sky object for me, but also because I noticed an increase in image resolution from the images captured using the 294MC Pro. 

NGC 7822

 

ZWO ASI533MC Pro Camera Specs:

  • Sensor: 1″ SONY IMX533 CMOS
  • Diagonal: 11.3mm x 11.3mm
  • Resolution: 9 Mega Pixels (3008 x 3008)
  • Pixel Size: 3.76µm
  • Bayer Pattern: RGGB
  • ADC:14bit
  • DDRIII Buffer: 256MB
  • Cooling: -35C below ambient
  • Read Noise: 1.0e
  • Full Well: 50000e
  • QE: 80%

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CCD vs. DSLR – A New Learning Curve

|Camera|8 Comments

Update: When this article was written, I referred to any non-DSLR camera a “CCD” camera. The correct term for this type of camera is “dedicated astronomy camera“, as the model mentioned in this post includes a CMOS sensor.

Since then, I have had the pleasure of experience a true CCD camera, the Starlight Xpress Trius 694 (Mono). With that out of the way, enjoy the raw emotions I share during my first experiences using a dedicated astronomy camera in place of a DSLR (or mirrorless camera) for astrophotography.

two types of astrophotography cameras

Like many of you, I love shooting astrophotography with my DSLR. I control my Canon Rebel T3i with BackyardEOS to capture deep-sky objects through my telescope. Then, the real fun begins by processing the images in DeepSkyStacker and Adobe Photoshop.

This method has worked for me for years, and there is lots of room to expand my astrophotography skills using this setup.  I favor this system because it is beginner-friendly, and it’s where I can help others get started.

ZWO ASI071MC-COOL CMOS Camera

However, I couldn’t turn down an opportunity to try out the new ASI071MC-Cool for the first time.  Let’s talk CCD vs. DSLR Astrophotography, more below:

Spring Equinox

The warmer, longer days have returned as we are now officially in Spring!  The Spring Equinox occurred on March 20th here in the Northern Hemisphere, which means earlier sunrises and later sunsets.  I must admit, I am looking forward to the milder nights sitting at the telescope without the numb fingers.

The Big Dipper in Spring

The Big Dipper in Ursa Major – Early Spring 2016

Despite fewer hours of overall darkness at night, the Spring imaging window works much better with my schedule.  I can now get home from work at a reasonable hour (6:00 – 6:30pm), have dinner, walk Rudy, and be right on time for dusk to start setting up my equipment.

Visual Observing While Imaging

Historically, this time of year generally provides less cloud-cover than in the winter.  “April showers bring May flowers”. Regardless of how the old saying goes, I always seem to get lots of imaging time during the month of April.

Even better, I can actually enjoy my time outside rather than setting everything up and running inside to monitor Team Viewer.  The nights that drop below -10 degrees celsius are over.  I like to set up a zero-gravity chair and scan the sky with my 15 x 70 Celestron SkyMaster Binoculars.

With the camera collecting data through the telescope in the background, I just turn on some classic rock and get lost in the constellations.  Truly magical.

New CCD Astrophotography Camera

The ZWO ASI071MC-Cool (Color) actually uses a color CMOS sensor (The same one used in the Nikon D7000) and was generously loaned to me from my friends over at Ontario Telescope & Accessories.

ASI071 Camera

Talk about information overload!  I have always shot astrophotography with a DSLR camera, and CCD imaging is completely new to me.

Since receiving the ASI071 last week, I have learned a wealth of knowledge on the subject thanks to fans of the AstroBackyard Facebook page, and helpful astrophotographers on Cloudy Nights.

One of the early setbacks was not knowing which Bayer pattern to use when stacking the .FIT files in DeepSkyStacker.  I’ll save you the trouble and tell you that it is Generic RGGB!

I was also advised to use (among other things) a UV filter when imaging with this camera which, unfortunately, I do not have.

Furthermore, using flat calibration frames is extremely important to properly calibrate the images in post-processing.  They are important for DSLR astrophotography too, but I found the new process of taking flats using Sequence Generator Pro to be a challenge my first time through.

ZWO ASI071MC-Cool (Color)

Sensor: Sony IMX071
Type: APS-C sized CMOS
Resolution: 16.2 MP (4928 x 3264 pixels)
Cooling: Regulated Two-Stage Tec (-40)

 

ZWO ASI071MC-Cool (Color)

Being the first CCD style camera I’ve ever used, my review is of CCD cameras in general, as opposed to this specific model.  I have no past CCD camera experiences to compare it to.

Currently, there are only a handful of early reviews of the ASI071-MC-Cool online, from more experienced CCD imagers than I.  A simple search of the camera model on Astrobin can give you some great examples of the capabilities of the ASI071.

What I can tell you from my personal experiences with the camera is that the ASI071 is impressive in terms of design and build quality.

The included accessories, documentation, and software from ZWO were very helpful for someone wanted to get started right away.  I’ll show you my early astrophotography results below.

Early Thoughts from a CCD Newb

So many questions, so many new terms, I felt like I was starting over.  With a CCD camera, you can forget about live-view focusing using the camera screen.  How about reviewing the image you just shot?  The camera doesn’t even have a screen!  Not to mention the new software required to run the camera, and process the new file format: .FIT

This is just the beginning.  A CCD camera is a specialized breed, capable of documenting scientific-grade data.  The advanced features like cooling to -40 degrees and full control of the gain and offset are why professional astrophotographers shoot narrowband CCD.

Some new software I’ve installed:

So far, Sequence Generator Pro has been rather enjoyable to use.  I was able to enter in my current equipment configuration and save it as an Equipment Profile, that I can select for each imaging session.  It was easy to integrate with PHD 2 Guiding, and provides a live graph with dithering options.

Testing the different sensitivity settings on the ASI071MC-Cool camera was a learning experience, one that took multiple imaging sessions to understand.  Thankfully the straight-forward controls of SGP allowed me to make changes and review my results quite painlessly.  The built in image preview and histogram made the process feel familiar.

I will note, however, that the live-view camera mode (for focus and framing purposes) seemed a little sluggish.  The 1-2 second delay in the video feed made making minor adjustments to focus a little aggravating.  I preferred to use SharpCap for this step, as it was much more responsive.

I’ll leave my early experiences using PixInsight for another post.  I am using 45-day trial versions of both SGP and PixInsight.  This option worked well for me, as I will only have the ASI for about the same period of time!

Early Imaging Results with the ASI071

I have to first say that there are a number of reasons why this image below is not a fair example of this cameras’ potential.  The photo below could have been improved by:

  • Integrating More Exposure Time
  • Using the Cooling Function of the Camera
  • Using Flats
  • Using a UV or LP filter
  • Shooting during New Moon

I don’t like to leave my reports without at least one photo.  So have a look at M81 and M82 with about 1.5 total hours total integrated exposure time from the backyard.  This was my test subject for this new process, and needs lots of work!  I’ll continue to capture more time on this target until I return the camera to OTA.

ASI071 example image

M81 and M82 using the ASI071MC-Cool Camera

The image was cropped over 50% to bypass the horrible gradient that dominated all sides of the image frame.  Again, this photo is for educational purposes only!  My goal is to produce an image using at least 4 hours worth of good data, using quality flat frames.

 

UPDATE: March 24, 2017

Click here for the latest version of M81 M82 (2+ Hours Exposure)

CCD vs. DSLR

Time will tell whether I ever fully transition to CCD imaging, or continue to push my deep-sky DSLR imaging to the limits.

I am very protective of my passion for astrophotography, and carefully monitor the emotions that are associated with my endeavors.  To sway too far away from the type of experience I enjoy most would be a miss-step at this stage.

I say this not to be overdramatic, but to share this insight from someone who lives and breathes DSLR astrophotography.  With that being said, many of the frustrations that come with learning new hardware ease over time, and become enjoyable.  I’ve already enjoyed some small victories with the ASI071MC camera and am having a lot of fun.

AstroBackyard YouTube Video:

I feel for beginner DSLR astrophotographers learning the ropes.  Starting with a completely new camera, software and imaging process has humbled me.  Perhaps I forgot what it felt like to be a beginner.  Pushing through the learning curve and enjoying the small victories along the way is what got me here.  It’s time to take my own advice!

If nothing else, this experience will give me a whole new appreciation for my DSLR.  Until next time, clear skies!

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Canon Rebel Astrophotography

|Camera|11 Comments

The very first camera I used for astrophotography was an old Canon Rebel Xsi (450D) DSLR. Even though the production of this camera was discontinued many years ago, I still use and enjoy this camera today.

A DSLR camera like the Canon Rebel 450D is a versatile choice as it can easily be attached to a telescope for deep sky imaging using a T-Ring and adapter. You can also use this camera with fantastic camera lenses such as the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 for wide-angle nightscapes and Milky Way photography.

I’ve used many types of cameras for astrophotography from monochrome CMOS imaging cameras to cooled one-shot-color models. My Canon Rebel DSLR’s continue to produce amazing images, and they are one of the best ways to get started in the hobby.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way captured with a Canon Rebel T3i on a SkyTracker Pro Mount

Astrophotography with a Canon Rebel DSLR

I eventually upgraded my DSLR camera to a (slightly) newer Canon EOS Rebel T3i (600D), and it came pre-modified for astrophotography. The modification that was made to this camera is known as the “full spectrum modification”, which involved removing the stock IR cut filter inside the camera body.

Although there are many choices to consider when it comes to choosing a camera for astrophotography, an entry-level Canon Rebel series DSLR offers a unique combination of value and performance.

In this post, I’ll share my personal results using the Canon Xsi DSLR for astrophotography, and give you my recommendations for a beginner DSLR camera.

Canon Rebel Xsi for astrophotography

The Canon Rebel XSi a popular DSLR camera for amateur astrophotographers

If you don’t own a telescope yet, but want to get into astrophotography using a DSLR, have a look at the following resource page: Astrophotography Tips You Can Try Tonight

Capturing Deep-Sky Targets with a DSLR

The moon’s glaring presence has subsided, and it is now time to gather more RGB (color) light frames on my coveted summer deep-sky milky way objects. This is now my 5th summer as an amateur astrophotographer, and I don’t like to waste time when choosing my target for the night.

During the months of May-July, the Messier objects located near the core of the Milky Way have my full attention. My favorite summer deep-sky objects lie within the Sagittarius region of the Milky Way Core. Many of them are bright and colorful such as the Lagoon Nebula, Eagle Nebula, and the Swan Nebula.

The Lagoon Nebula is one of my all-time favorite targets and a worthy photo opportunity for any DSLR camera and telescope. The summer emission nebulae in Sagittarius are so bright, it is possible to photograph them from a light=polluted area such as your backyard in the city. My backyard skies are rated a Class 8 on the Bortle Scale.

From my latitude in the Northern Hemisphere (Ontario, Canada), the main aspect to consider is having a clear window of sky to the South, as most of the summer Milky Way targets travel Southeast to Southwest throughout the night.

Canon rebel astrophotography

 

The Lagoon Nebula using a Canon EOS Rebel Xsi

The photo of the Lagoon Nebula above was imaged over several nights last week. I set up my telescope gear on June 30th, July 2nd, and July 3rd over the Canada-Day long weekend in my backyard. It’s rare that we have such a long stretch of clear nights, especially on a long weekend.

This colorful nebula does not rise very high in the sky from my latitude in Southern Ontario. In fact, it just barely clears the height of my backyard fence. When planning a deep sky imaging session, it’s important to have a clear view of your target for an extended period of time.

I consider myself very lucky to be able to photograph such a glorious night-sky treasure from home.  You can view the specific photography details for my final image on my Flickr profile. I also managed to squeeze in some more imaging time on the Eagle Nebula, as well as the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula over the weekend, as you will see further down the post.

Capturing Galaxies

I have photographed many galaxies with my Canon EOS Rebel Xsi from the backyard. One of my most successful images was the Triangulum Galaxy. A long stretch of clear nights allowed me to collect over 7 hours of exposure time on M33.

This is a diffuse deep-sky object which can make it difficult to observe visually, but through photography, we can reveal the beautiful structure and color of this galaxy. The telescope used to capture the image below was an Explore Scientific ED80 with a focal length of 480mm.

Triangulum Galaxy

The Triangulum Galaxy using a modified Canon EOS Rebel Xsi

For Beginners / Newbies

You can view the equipment I use to take images like the ones on this website here or watch this video as I take you through my complete setup for astrophotography.

If you already own a DSLR and telescope and have started taking your own astrophotos – you may benefit from my astrophotography tutorials about image processing.

I connect my Canon Rebel DSLR to my laptop computer using a USB cable and control the camera through a software application known as BackyardEOS.  With this application, I can tell my DSLR to take multiple exposures of varying lengths and ISO settings.

Backyard Telescope

My Canon Rebel Xsi attached to an astrophotography telescope

I can also use this program to focus the stars, and make sure that my astrophotography subject is in the center of the frame. A typical session in my backyard will last all night long and have my Canon Xsi set to take anywhere from 30-60 three to four-minute exposures on a nebula or galaxy.

Dark frames of the same temperature are also captured during the night to reduce noise in the final image. As a general rule of thumb, the colder your digital camera is while imaging, the better!  Long-exposures taken during a hot summer night will produce even more noise than usual.

The Canon Rebel series DSLR cameras are also well-suited for Moon photography. If you connect the DSLR camera to a telescope, you benefit from its long focal length (compared to most lenses) for an up-close look at our nearest celestial neighbor.  

Moon through a telescope

If you are interested in this aspect of solar system astrophotography, be sure to have a look at my Moon photography tutorial. The Moon is an excellent target for your DSLR camera at any focal length. 

Hot Summer Nights

On a recent attempt to gather some H-alpha data on the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula, I discovered the limits of my DSLR when imaging in the hot summer heat.  On this particular night in Mid-June, the temperature remained over 30° well after midnight.

This was just too hot for my Canon 7D to capture any useful data on my deep-sky target.  (I use a different DSLR for my H-Alpha captures, as my Canon Rebel Xsi has the LP filter fitted to it at all times)

The hot hazy skies, combined with a dangerously hot sensor produced a red, noisy mess of an image.  An exposure of 30 seconds to a minute may be fine in this heat, but I was shooting 7-minute subs at ISO 1600 to pick up faint nebulosity through a narrowband 12nm Ha filter.  Lesson learned!

I have since returned to the Elephant’s trunk nebula in the constellation Cepheus, and let me tell you – it is faint!  Photographing IC 1396 from a light-polluted backyard in the city has proved to be quite the challenge.  I was able to capture about 2 hours of exposure on this nebula last week, which is not enough to produce a pleasing image.

By stretching the data far enough (using curves in Adobe Photoshop) to show the rim of the nebula, the background stars become blown out and noisy.  It takes many hours worth of imaging to produce a decent portrait of this DSO.  Here is my early result with limited exposure time:

IC 1396 - Elephant's Trunk Nebula

The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in Cepheus

Best Beginner DSLR for Astrophotography

I have stood behind the Canon brand of DSLR’s from the beginning. Based on the advice I read in the Backyard Astronomers Guide back in 2010, I chose to start my photography adventure using Canon digital cameras.

At the time, they were the clear choice for astrophotographers, offering the only DSLR built for astrophotography (They later released the Canon 60Da)  Nikon has come a long way since then in the way of astrophotography, but my heart still belongs to Canon.

The Nikon D810A is a camera intended for astrophotography, as you may have gathered with the “a” designation in the title. This is Nikon’s first DSLR dedicated to long-exposure astrophotography. This camera body was based on the original D810, but include a sensor that is four times more sensitive to H-Alpha red tones than an ordinary DSLR.

Canon EOS Rebel T3i

In 2015 I upgraded to Canon EOS Rebel T3i camera for astrophotography. The T3i (600D) came pre-modified by an astro-modification service known as “Astro-Mod Canada”. I have used this camera to capture many deep-sky objects using various clip-in filters.

This is the DSLR I always recommend to beginners. First of all, it is the successor to the Canon Xsi which I use now and can provide actual results (my photo gallery) of the astrophotography performance of this camera. Second, it is a great value.

Canon Rebel T3i

You will find used models of this camera body at online retailers (such as Henry’s in Canada) for a fraction of the price of a new CCD Astronomy Camera.  You can no longer purchase this camera new, so if you can’t find a used body at camera retailers, you will have to search online forums such as Canada Wide Astronomy Buy and Sell, or Astromart.

This camera can also quite easily be modified for astrophotography by yourself or a professional.  The features of the camera itself are quite standard of all models these days, but this DSLR is capable of taking astonishing deep-sky and landscape astrophotography images.

My favorite feature of the T3i is the flip-out LCD screen. This comes in very handy when shooting deep-sky astrophotography images because the camera is often in an awkward position when connected to a telescope.

Tilting the screen to a more accessible angle allows me to focus the telescope using the 10X live-view function of the camera. I can also review the histogram, make changes to the exposure time, and review my light frames as they are being captured.

The Canon T4i and T5i are also excellent choices but are a little more expensive.  The Canon T5i can be purchased in a kit including an 18-55mm lens.

Recommended Clip-in Filters

I have used a wide variety of clip-in light pollution filters with my Canon Rebel DSLR cameras. For deep-sky targets containing hydrogen-alpha emission data such as the Eagle Nebula, a narrowband filter like the 12nm Astronomik Ha is an excellent choice.

For capturing broadband RGB data on my targets, the SkyTech CLS-CCD filter allows me to block a healthy amount of city glow. This filter creates an impressive amount of contrast between your object and a light-polluted sky.

For broad-spectrum targets such as galaxies or reflection nebulae, I recommend trying the Optolong L-Pro filter. This multi-bandpass filter is less aggressive and helps retain the natural colors of the stars in your image.

DSLR camera filter

The Optolong L-Pro filter in My Canon Rebel 600D

Why use a DSLR?

There are many different types of astrophotography cameras available, other than Digital SLR’s. Dedicated thermal-cooled CCD cameras are much better at producing deep-sky images with less noise, but are much more expensive and less user-friendly.

Webcams can produce stunning images of Solar System planets and the moon and can be inexpensive and easier to use. The Altair Hypercam 183C is an example of a dedicated astronomy camera that can bridge the gap between a DSLR and a CCD.

I still enjoy using a DSLR because it’s an enjoyable experience. You can’t beat the value and versatility of the Canon Rebel series cameras.

Light Pollution Map

I often speak of the light pollution from my backyard in the city.  I love to get away from home to image under dark skies at my astronomy club’s observatory (RASC Niagara Center) – but I rarely have time to drive 40 minutes with all of my equipment to this special place.

To maximize my time under the stars, it makes more sense for me to get as much astrophotography in at home, in the backyard. (Hence the name of this website) The light pollution produced by the city I live in is quite heavy, especially in certain areas.  My house is in the worst of it, being located in the central area of town.

I found this helpful Light Pollution Map that shows just how bad it really is:

Light Pollution Map

Light Pollution Map for my Backyard

The Bortle Scale

Do you see that?  I am in a Red Zone!  I would estimate that my location is either a class 7 or 8 on the Bortle Scale, although I have not yet taken an accurate light pollution measurement.  The Bortle Scale states that a class 6 zone (NELM 5.1-5.5) will have your surroundings easily visible and that the Milky Way is visible only at the Zenith.  

These characteristics are true of my backyard and is referred to as a bright suburban sky. How much light pollution is in your backyard?  You can use this nifty interactive map to find out: Light Pollution Map

To view all of my best images captured with a Canon Rebel Xsi and T3i, check out my photo gallery.  I wish you all the best in your future astrophotography endeavors, clear skies.

Helpful Resource: Getting Started with Deep Sky Astrophotography

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