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Astrophotography Camera

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. See a large version of NGC 7822 on Astrobin.

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

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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.

binoculars for stargazing

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.

AstroBackyard is about the enjoyment of astrophotography as a hobby.  It’s about the desire to keep improve your images, and loving every step along the way.

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!

Related Posts:

Choosing a camera for astrophotography

Why I’m switching to a mono (CMOS) camera

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Canon Rebel Astrophotography

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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.

Lagoon Nebula with a DSLR

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 along 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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