One of the most popular aspects of modern astronomy is astrophotography. It can also be time consuming. Taking a single photograph takes up hours of capturing and processing data. The good news is that with the right gear, you can hit the ground running.
Whether it’s deep sky or planetary imaging, CCD or DSLR, we can help you find something that suits you and captures stellar images. But before we look at the best cameras for astrophotography, let’s review the differences between CCD and DSLR.
Why DSLR Cameras?
While there are many types of cameras, we highly recommend the DSLR cameras for astrophotography. You can find a few dedicated CCD and CMOS cameras that work great but many consumers cannot afford them. The affordability and ability to deliver stunning images, thanks to their larger sensors, is what makes DSLR so popular among astronomers. It is important to keep in mind that you don’t need to start with an expensive camera. Some of the advantages of CCDs include:
- Mono sensors allow for capture of non-visible wavelengths through narrow band filters
- Higher sensitivity results in cleaner, more detailed images
- Active cooling helps reduce interference from thermal interference
What about CCD Cameras?
Astronomical CCD cameras are very different from DSLR. They are exclusively designed for astrophotography and the nature of the CCD sensor in a DSLR results in a camera with high sensitivity and higher noise. Many CCD cameras come with mono sensors, meaning they are used with filter wheels with different colored filters so as to capture natural color images. Advantages of these cameras include:
- Preview and setup on the camera screen
- More portable and no need for laptop
- In-camera processing plays a vital role in reducing post-processing effect
- Easier to use as no filter wheels or laptop are required
A List of the Best Cameras for Astrophotography Reviewed
20.2MP full frame CMOS sensor
4.5 frames per second continuous shooting
24MP DX-format CMOS sensor with no optical low-pass filter
39-point AF system with 3D tracking and 3D matrix metering II
20.2 MP CMOS sensor and ISO 100-16000
High speed continuous shooting up to 10.0 fps
36.3 MP FX-format CMOS sensor without an Optical Low Pass Filter (OLPF)
30% faster EXPEED 4 image processing engine
24.2 Megapixel CMOS (APS-C) sensor, ISO 100–12800 (expandable to H: 25600)
EOS Full HD Movie mode helps capture brilliant results in MP4 format
Less than a week after Nikon made the headlines with the D600, Canon launched its own price conscious full frame DSLR, the EOS 6D. This marked the birth of affordable full frame DSLR. A decade before that, full-frame DSLRs were only reserved for those with deep pockets. With this niche becoming more crowded every day, the appeal of the Canon 6D may well rest on things like the feature set and handling.
- Built-in Wi-Fi and GPS
- 4.5 fps continuous shooting
- ‘Silent’ shutter mode
- DIGIC 5+ image processor
- 20.2 MP full frame CMOS sensor
- 63 zone iFCL metering system
- 1080p30 video recording, stereo recording via external mic
- 97% viewfinder coverage, interchangeable screens including the Eg-S fine focus and Eg-D grid
The Canon 6D camera is built around a CMOS sensor that offers 20.2 megapixels. In addition to the DIGIC 5+ processor, it offers a 100-25,600 ISO range that’s expandable to 50-102,400. Its AF system has 11 points, one of which is cross-type. The major trump card is its ability to focus in extremely low light conditions at -3 EV. If that doesn’t mean much to you, -3 EV is equivalent to the light cast by the moon.
Notable additions include integrated Wi-Fi and GPS. The former allows for remote control of the camera using a smartphone. It also comes with silent shutter mode for more discreet and quieter shooting as the in-camera HDR and Multi-Exposure modes. The 6D does not have on-chip phase detection to help with autofocus in movie mode or live view and neither does Canon’s touch screen interface make an appearance.
Focus acquisition on the Canon 6D is stellar and displays all hallmarks of mature phase detection AF performance. The camera centers and focuses on objects in the night sky quickly and accurately. It uses an LP-E6 lithium ion battery with a capacity of 1800 mAh, which is enough for 1090 shots when shooting through the viewfinder.
The Nikon D5500 may be the newer model but the D5300 is still part of Nikon’s DSLR lineup. It is an entry-level model that offers more features than the likes of Canon EOS Rebel T6 and Nikon D3300. But is it a worthy buy when it comes to astrophotography? Let’s find out.
- 1080p video capture
- 3.2 inch vari-angle screen
- APS-C CMOS sensor, 24.2 MP
- Incorporates a stereo microphone
- Polycarbonate construction
- 5fps burst shooting
- Clear and bright display
- 600 shot battery life
- ISO 100-12,800 expandable to 100-25,600
- No low-pass filter
- Creative effect modes
Like most Nikon DSLR cameras, the D5300 uses a sensor without a low pass filter. This allows for the potential to capture more detail, but at the risk of more patterning. The use of an EXPEED 4 processing engine gives Nikon more power to improve the image quality of this model. This also means most impact with noise control at the highest sensitivity settings.
The D5300 made a name for itself when it became the first DSLR by Nikon to be built using monocoque construction, meaning that the shell is made from one material. This makes the camera much stronger at only 480 grams. Other than a few extra holes for the stereo mic and the Wi-Fi and GPS icons; the top plate looks the same as that of the D5200. There are a few buttons on this model and most settings are made via on-screen controls. There are up 14 features available for adjustment including Metering mode, AF-area mode, Focus mode and Picture Control.
While I don’t have any complaints about its Matrix Metering System, using the Active D-Lighting System in its Automatic and Normal settings produces some images with mid-tones that are a little too bright. While it’s not a major issue, it is something you should keep an eye on. The white balance performs well a variety of lighting conditions, producing excellent planetary and nebula images at night.
Flicking the sprung switch under the mode dial activates the Live View. Having a vari-angle screen, it is more likely to be used in live view mode compared to other Nikon cameras. The D5300 has a 3.2 inch 1,037,000-dot screen that provides a clear view of the night sky with more detail. The screen also copes well with bright light.
All in all, the Nikon D5300 produces crisp planetary images and is a great buy for beginner astrophotography. The control layout is relatively simple and the Wi-Fi connectivity is a good option for someone who wants to take this hobby seriously.
The Canon 7D Mark II is tailored with a variety of features for sports and wildlife photographers, but works just as great for beginner astrophotography. A cropped frame sensor, advanced auto-focusing system and 10fps shooting speed are just a few of the features make up this durable, weather sealed body an exciting prospect for astronomers.
- Built-in GPS
- 20MP Dual-Pixel AF CMOS Sensor
- 10 fps continuous shooting with autofocus
- Dual DIGIC 6 processors
- USB 3.0
- Enhanced environmental sealing
- 150,000 RGB + IR pixel metering sensor
- Larger capacity LP-E6N battery
- 65 all cross-type autofocus sensor
- Compact Flash (UDMA) and SD(UHS-I) clots
- Shutter rated to 200,000 cycles
- Shutter speeds up to 1/8000th seconds
The Canon 7D Mark II offers an all cross-type, 65 point AF module that comes in handy for stills astrophotography. It works in collaboration with information from a 150,000 pixel RGB + IR metering sensor to offer the Intelligent Tracking and Recognition focus system. This means that with an initial focus point selected and the iTR engaged, a half-depress of the shutter button can be used to initiate focus while allowing the camera to track objects in the sky as it moves across the frame. The 7D uses whichever AF point is necessary to maintain focus on the chosen target.
It has a continuous shooting rate of up to 10 frames per second, along with a shutter that can survive 200,000 cycles. The main image sensor is a variant of the Dual Pixel AF design that was first seen in the Canon EOS 70D, meaning an output of 20MP. This also proves its ability to capture information about the position and depth of the nebula using the image sensor whenever the mirror is up. It can potentially provide more decisive autofocus as well as target tracking using Live View, particularly when shooting videos.
Live view shooting on the Canon 7D Mark II is a great experience thanks to the integrated Dual-Pixel autofocus system. Its ability to track objects with precision and accuracy is stellar. One area where this is a letdown is continuous shooting. While Dual-Pixel autofocus is effective at tracking moving objects, the continuous shooting feature doesn’t take advantage of it.
Under the hood, the 7D Mark II is an entirely different beast compared to the original 7D. Rather than focus on increased resolution, Canon focused on all the other aspects to ensure a streamlined experience for astro-photographers to capture the images they want. The lightning fast autofocus system with 65 cross-type sensors across the viewfinder paired with the 10 frames per second continuous shooting makes it hard to find a situation that the Canon 7D Mark II can’t keep up with. Add in iTR metering with tracking and the odds of nailing focus go higher.
The Nikon D810A is a 36.3 megapixel full frame digital DSLR designed for astrophotography. It comes with a specialized IR cut filter that captures tones. It has no optical low pass filter. The camera can shoot extra-long exposures up to 15 minutes, with unlimited continuous shooting, interval shooting, as well as built in time lapse.
- 36.3 MP full frame FX CMOS sensor without OLPF
- 5fps full frame continuous shooting up to 7fps DX dropped
- Sensitivity to the 656n wavelength
- Electronic front curtain shutter
- Virtual exposure preview mode
- M*Long exposure mode
- Quiet shutter with a 200,000 shutter life rating
- 1229k dot 3.2inch RBGW screen
- Magnesium alloy weather sealed body
- NEF-S 9MP raw recording
- 100% optical viewfinder
- Full HD 1080p, at 50-60 fps
- 51 AF points, with new group area as per D4S
The Nikon D810A is specially designed for astrophotography, with the ability to record red tones of H-alpha emission nebulae with four times more sensitivity to the 656n wavelength as compared to standard DSLRs. The patented Capture NX-D software from Nikon is available for free download and has a Noise Reduction that eliminates pixel artifacts without sacrificing the stars.
With such a variety of features, this camera is versatile enough for regular photography. For someone who plans to use the D810A for general photography, the IR cut filter is a great idea. The dedicated infrared filter can be used to block visible light and capture infrared photos.
The D810A comes with a new M* manual mode that allows one to choose exposure times between 4 and 900 seconds. It also comes with the normal manual mode. Both modes feature a bulb and you can dim the rear LCD screen in low light conditions. The Virtual Exposure preview is also another feature not found in the original D810. It lets you preview how the photo will look like when using long exposure times. The camera feels good in the hand and has a weather sealed body, a reassurance for those that will use it for its intended purpose.
The quiet shutter mode lets you dampen the noise of the shutter and the camera has 51 AF points. The D810A comes with a large and bright optical viewfinder. The controls are as good as what you’d expect in a Nikon DSLR and neatly laid out while the 3.2-inch screen a crisp display. The battery life is rated 1200 shots and can be extended with the optional Nikon battery grip.
Like the other T-something-I models before it, the Canon T6i is designed to deliver professional grade quality images in an easy-to-use, feature filled, compact and lightweight body that carries an affordable price tag. These are the qualities that anchor the Canon Rebel model in the top-selling DSLR category for years.
- Built-in Wi-Fi and Near Field Communication capabilities
- New 24.2 megapixel Canon CMOS imaging sensor
- DIGIC 6 Image Processor
- Extensive ISO range of 100-12800 expandable to 25600
- 19-point all cross-type AF system
- 5 fps high speed continuous shooting
- Hybrid CMOS AF III image sensor-embedded autofocus system
- Light flicker detection and anti-flicker shutter timing
- 3-inch Vari-Angle Touch Screen Clear View LCD monitor with 1,040,000 dots
- Intelligent viewfinder with crystal overlay
- Full HD 1080p resolution
You’d think that with a 24-megapixel sensor, the image noise levels and sharpness would suffer. But that concern should be put to rest the moment you use the T6i to capture photos of galaxies and planetary bodies like Jupiter and Saturn. It shows no signs of image sharpness degradation and compared to the Canon 7D Mark II, it is a clear winner in this regard.
A 3-inch Clear View Vari-Angle Touch Screen LCD monitor does a good job of providing playback viewing and clear composition with 1040k resolution. The tilt and swivel capability makes shooting at odd angles a walk in the park. There are seven levels of brightness control, intuitive touch screen control allows for simple menu control. It also offers Touch AutoFocus. The built-in Wi-Fi capability lets you transfer images and videos. You can also upload images to social network platforms with the Camera Connect app. The NFC capability allows you to pair the camera to compatible mobile devices and the CS100 Connect Station.
The T6i comes with hybrid CMOS AF III System that can be utilized when shooting videos and photos in Live View. Combining two different AF-phase and contrast detection-continuous focus allows for faster and more accurate tracking.
What To Look For
Taking shots in the night sky can be fun. It’s is especially exciting when you have the right camera for the job. When in the market for a DSLR camera, it’s a good idea to keep things simple. With the vast number of brands that sell astrophotography cameras, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the choices. The best idea here is to narrow down your selection to the two best companies in the industry – Nikon and Canon. They are known for their innovative designs and best cameras that over value for money. They also have models that work great for this particular purpose. Other features to look for include:
- Live view LCD: This feature makes it easy to center and focus on bright objects. Live view that also features exposure compensation helps ensure that your camera settings are appropriate for bright targets like Saturn, Jupiter and the Moon.
- Low thermal sensitivity: Professional astrophotography cameras are usually cooled down to temperatures below the freezing point. The reason behind this is that the thermal noise recorded by the sensor increases with increase in temperatures of the CMOS or CCD sensor. Models like Canon 7D Mark II that have low thermal sensitivity are what you should keep your eye on.
While there is no right answer as to which is the best astrophotography camera, your choice depends a lot on budget and personal preference. This post reviews my personal favorites based on extensive research, but it is by no means all-inclusive.