Astrophotography cameras: which should you buy?

Deciding which camera to buy for astrophotography can be a minefield. What are the different types, and what can they do? Find out in our beginner's guide.

Which camera is best for astrophotography? Credit: iStock / Getty Images Plus

Astrophotography has become increasingly popular and, thanks to modern technology, these days we don’t need enormous budgets to get great images: even smartphone cameras can give impressive results.

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The main consideration when selecting what sort of camera you need for astrophotography is whether you wish to pursue wide-field, planetary, or deep-sky imaging. Typically, any device used for night-sky imaging will need to perform long exposures, have remote shutter capability and ISO control (to alter sensitivity to light).

Astrophotography With A Smartphone: Timelapses HEADER
Even your smartphone can be used to captured beautiful images of the night sky.

Here we’re going to run through the most popular cameras for astro imaging, pointing out strengths and considerations. We begin with a type of camera that many people will have with them most of the time.

To get the most out of whichever camera you have, read our astrophotography guides, including our beginner’s tips for image processing. And if you’re on the lookout for your first camera, or perhaps an upgrade, browse all of our camera reviews.

1

Smartphones

The smartphone you carry every day can be used to capture a range of night-sky objects. Credit: iStock
The smartphone you carry every day can be used to capture a range of night-sky objects. Credit: iStock

Many smartphones can perform entry-level astrophotography, while some offer the ability to take long exposures, meaning you can pick up Milky Way details or star trails.

You can also hold smartphones up to a telescope eyepiece to take pictures, or use a smartphone adaptor (more on this below). This enables lunar and planetary imaging, but it’s difficult to get sharp images.

Andromeda taken using 1.55x zoom. Exposure: 16
Andromeda captured on the Google Pixel 4 smartphone using its ‘Night Sight’ mode. Credit: Paul Money

Although some smartphones have multiple cameras installed, these are tricky to line up to eyepieces. In a nutshell, smartphones are not dedicated astrophotography products and don’t offer the exposure control of a DSLR camera.

For more on smartphone astrophotography, read our top tips for photographing the night sky with a smartphone, or the best smartphone astrophotography gadgets.

Best suited for Star trails, Milky Way and general wide-field imaging

Limitations Deep-sky photography

Ideal accessories Tripod, telescope adaptor

2

DSLRs

Canon EOS M100 camera review
Canon EOS M100 DSLR camera

DSLRs (Digital single-lens reflex cameras) are good all-rounders. Because you can alter the ISO level and manage exposure lengths, these cameras are easily adapted for many astronomy targets.

Increasing the ISO setting ensures a DSLR can pick up details from deep-sky objects, including nebulae, but if this is coupled with a long exposure time there can be an issue with noise (unwanted artefacts) creeping in, which can be because the ISO is too high (the best ISO varies between cameras) or because the exposure time is causing the sensor to warm up.

The Andromeda Galaxy Tom Howard, Isle of Wight/Crawley, December 2018 and August 2020. Equipment: Nikon D7000 DSLR camera, TS-Optics 65mm quadruplet refractor, Sky-Watcher EQ6 mount
The Andromeda Galaxy, captured by Tom Howard  with a Nikon D7000 DSLR camera, TS-Optics 65mm quadruplet refractor and Sky-Watcher EQ6 mount.

DSLRs with ‘Live View’ or video capability can be used for planetary imaging, although they’re less efficient at cutting through atmospheric distortion than a planetary camera. For more on this, read our guide to astronomical seeing.

Some astro imagers modify a DSLR by removing the infrared (IR) filter, which makes it more sensitive to nebulae. A modified DSLR also allows narrowband filters to be used, which improve image details.

Best suited for Wide-field, lunar and deep-sky imaging

Limitations Exposures lasting over ~5 minutes, planetary imaging

Ideal accessories Tracking mount, intervalometer (remote shutter release cable)

3

Planetary cameras & webcams

If you're a planetary imager, make sure your laptop and software are ready for a new season of astronomy. Credit: Steve Marsh
Planetary and web cams require a laptop and the latest software. Credit: Steve Marsh

Planetary imaging requires a telescope and you’ll find that reflectors are most suitable because of their long focal lengths.

If a planetary camera is also coupled with a 2x Barlow lens you’ll be able to achieve the magnification required for planetary detail, while the camera’s high frame rate will allow you to cut through atmospheric turbulence.

You’ll require a laptop to run these cameras and, as you’re viewing an object up close, a solid tracking telescope mount is also needed, which allows you to keep the planet central in the field of view.

01 - Moon mosaic Craig Towell, Bristol, 21 September 2019 Equipment: Altair Astro GPCAM3 290M mono camera, Fullerscope 8.75
A mosaic of the Moon captured by Craig Towell from Bristol, UK, using a an Altair Astro GPCAM3 290M mono camera, Fullerscope 8.75″ f/7.5 Newtonian and Sky-Watcher EQ6 mount.

When it comes to deep-sky imaging, planetary cameras have small sensors, which means they’re not always suited.

It’s also possible to modify an off-the-shelf webcam for planetary imaging, so that it fits into the eyepiece holder of your telescope (see below for more details).

Best suited for Lunar and planetary imaging

Limitations Deep-sky objects and wide-field imaging

Ideal accessories Laptop, 2x Barlow lens, processing software (eg RegiStax)

4

CMOS & CCD cameras

QHYCCD QHY 168C CMOS colour camera. Credit: BBC Sky at Night Magazine
QHYCCD QHY 168C CMOS colour camera. Credit: BBC Sky at Night Magazine

CMOS and CCDs are ‘dedicated astrocams’ designed to be fitted to a telescope. Each comes in ‘colour’ – for RGB (Red, Green and Blue) imaging – or ‘mono’ variants. Mono cameras require the use of colour or narrowband filters.

CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras are suited for long-exposure astrophotography (10-plus minutes per frame) because they have ‘set-point’ cooling systems that keep the sensor temperature constant, which is known as ‘active’ camera cooling.

CMOS sensors perform better with shorter exposures and come as either actively or ‘passively’ cooled.

Southern Pinwheel Galaxy Rogerio Alonso, Minas Gerais, Brazil, 19 August 2018. Equipment: ZWO Optical ASI1600MM CMOS camera, SkyWatcher 200/1000mm Newtonian, SkyWatcher AZ-EQ6 GT mount
The Southern Pinwheel Galaxy captured by Rogerio Alonso, Minas Gerais, Brazil, with a ZWO Optical ASI1600MM CMOS camera, Sky-Watcher 200/1000mm Newtonian and SkyWatcher AZ-EQ6 GT mount.

Laptops are needed to run either device. To maximise CCD exposure times, additional accessories – including guiding equipment and software – are often required. Using these cameras can be a steep learning curve, so it’s best to build up to it gradually.

There are adaptors available that fit these ‘astro cams’ to DSLR camera lenses, which allows you to use them for wide-field deep-sky imaging.

For more on CCDs, read our guide to the best CCD cameras for astrophotography or our beginner’s guide to CMOS astrophotography.

Best suited for Deep-sky imaging

Limitations Milky Way and wide-field imaging

Accessories Laptop, telescope, guide equipment and software

How to link connect a camera to your telescope

telescope smartphone holder
A smartphone adaptor will let you line up your phones camera with your telescope eyepiece.

You can go far with astrophotography by using a DSLR and lenses, but for a deep-sky object or planetary photography the addition of a telescope to your setup will widen your options. Your target will appear larger, allowing more detail.

Smartphones can be fitted to a telescope eyepiece holder via an adaptor: you just need the right one for your model. If you fancy making your own, read our DIY guide to making a smartphone adaptor for your telescope.

To attach a DSLR you will need a T-ring and nosepiece. The T-ring fits to the camera like a lens. For example, if you are using a Canon DSLR, you’ll need a Canon-fit T ring. The nosepiece is either 2-inch or 1.25-inch and you’ll find that most telescopes take either diameter.

If you are using a webcam, you’ll need to consider modifying it to fit to the scope’s eyepiece holder. This often involves stripping the webcam down to rehouse it in suitable casing. How difficult and effective this is will depend on the model.

If you are using a 2x or 3x Barlow lens and a reflector, you’ll pop the Barlow into the eyepiece barrel before attaching your webcam.

Designated planetary cameras, CCD and CMOS devices, come with a nosepiece attachment that fits to your scope.

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Charlotte Daniels is an amateur astronomer, astrophotographer and astronomy writer. This guide originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.