If you’re looking to capture stunning photos of the stars, planets and nebulae, you are going to need a camera that is capable of taking clean, crisp pictures under low-light conditions.
While its great to take some quick shots by placing your smartphone over the eye-piece of your telescope. However, to bring your astrophotography images to the next level your smartphone’s camera won’t suffice.
Fortunately, with the advancements in technology you won’t need to mortgage the farm to pickup a camera that will work well for astrophotography. There are now plenty of capable cameras that are also pretty affordable as well.
In this buying guide, we are going to break down the features you’ll want to look for in an astrophotography camera.
At the end of the article, we’ll provide our recommendations for the top 10 best cameras for astrophotography right now.
Without further ado, let us begin.
How Many Megapixels are Needed for Astrophotography?
As we know, digital cameras (including the ones for astrophotography) will capture images on an array of light-sensitive dots on the camera’s sensor, called pixels.
There are two main factors to consider when discussing these pixels: the size of an individual pixel, and how many pixels the sensor possesses.
Due to advertisements and marketing jargon, we tend to look for the term ‘megapixels’ when reviewing consumer cameras.
Megapixels refer to the number of pixels of the camera’s sensor, to be exact, 1 megapixel (MP) means that the sensor has 1 million pixels.
The thing is, the megapixel rating doesn’t solely dictate the quality of the camera. A low-quality 20-MP camera, for example, can be much worse than a professional-quality 5-MP camera.
As discussed above, the size of the pixel also matters, and in an astrophotography camera, the size of the pixel matters much more than the number of pixels on the camera. Why?
The larger the pixel, the larger the field of the sky you can capture, and the more polished the level of detail you can get.
Another important factor to consider is that high-end astrophotography typically combines multiple exposures of different sections of the sky to make a mosaic image.
With this process, even if we don’t have a large number of pixels, we can get a really high-resolution image. This is made possible by a stable and accurate mount that is typically used in astrophotography, so capturing multiple side-by-side images shouldn’t be an issue.
So, megapixels shouldn’t be the primary factor when choosing between different astrophotography cameras, but you should instead look at the size of the pixel.
Also, having a stable mount/support for the camera is very important in astrophotography. This is why in astrophotography, full-frame and larger-sensor cameras like APS-C are preferred.
DSLR vs Mirrorless: Which is Better for Astrophotography?
There isn’t a simple one-size-fits-all answer to this question, as there are various advantages and disadvantages to both DSLR and mirrorless systems.
It’s no secret that in recent years, mirrorless cameras are becoming increasingly popular, and technology-wise, they are getting better and better.
However, to understand the differences between the two, let us first refer to the chart below:
|Better battery life||Battery life||Poor battery life|
|More choices||Lens choices||Fewer lens choices at the moment|
|Older technology||Technology||Newer, continuously advancing|
|Typically more durable and robust||Durability||Less durable, smaller second-hand market|
|Traditional viewfinder||Viewfinder||Electronic viewfinder|
So, the answer will ultimately depend on your preferences and astrophotography needs.
For example, if you want a durable body prefer a traditional (optical) viewfinder, then DSLR might be a better bet. Instead, if you want a longer battery and something lighter, then go for mirrorless.
Nowadays, you can quite easily find both mirrorless and DSLR cameras in various price ranges, so you’ll most likely find one according to your budget.
A special concern in astrophotography is that if you often go to night-long observations, then the DSLR’s longer battery life can be a huge advantage. You can easily use a DSLR for the whole night with just one or two spare batteries while you might need more spares (meaning, more money) with mirrorless cameras.
However, the high-ISO in newer mirrorless cameras can also be a great advantage for astrophotography, so purchasing those extra batteries or a charging unit might be worth it in the long-run.
So, figure out your needs and preferences before deciding on whether you’d want a DSLR or a mirrorless.
How to Take Good Astrophotography Pictures at Night?
First and foremost, even if you have the best, most expensive camera designed for astrophotography, you won’t be able to make the most of the camera if you don’t use the right settings for night photography.
While the settings may vary depending on your camera model, here are the five most important ones:
- Manual: avoid using automatic shoots at all costs, as it will typically confuse the camera. Make sure to switch to your camera’s manual settings.
- Tripod: make sure to use a strong tripod especially in windy conditions, or find other ways to stabilize the camera as much as possible. You’ll use slow shutter speeds, so if your camera isn’t stable, it will result in shaky photos.
- High ISO: you can start at around 800 ISO, and depending on the light conditions, crank it up if it’s still not enough. Remember, however, that the higher ISO you use. The more noise you’ll see in the final image. This is where having a high-quality camera can allow you to get clear photos even at a very high ISO.
- Slow shutter speeds: you might need a very long shutter speed of more than 10 seconds depending on the object you are trying to capture and the amount of available light.
- Wide aperture: obviously this will depend on the lens you are using, but typically wider is better. We’d recommend lenses that can open as wide as f/1.2 – f/1.8, with f/2.8 being the bare minimum recommendation.
Also, here are some useful tips to improve your astrophotography:
Astrophotography and night photography, in general, requires patience. Don’t rush things and give yourself enough time to get the right settings and take a lot of test shots to capture that perfect photo.
As we can see above, astrophotography settings would typically be more ad-hoc rather than a one-size-fits-all thing.
While we’ve discussed that you should try manual settings in astrophotography, you can try using auto aperture priority to help you, which can be useful when you are just starting out and getting the grasp of things.
Choose a wider aperture and let your camera adjust things automatically.
Get a remote
As we have discussed, stability is very important in astrophotography, and even with a very stable tripod, your hands can cause a camera shake when you press the shutter button.
You can get a shutter remote or a release cable to keep your camera stable at all times.
If your camera has a built-in exposure bracketing, you can try using it to help in getting the right amount of exposure. If not, try playing with your camera’s exposure compensation settings.
If your camera has this feature, bulb mode allows us to keep the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter button. Typically by default, the shutter will close after 30 seconds or so.
This is useful, for example, if you want to capture star trails.
Top 10 Best Cameras for Astrophotography
Based on the criteria we’ve discussed above, here we’ve picked 10 of the best astrophotography cameras available in the market today.
We’ve tested countless different products available in the market, and after weighing all the different features and benefits of each respective camera, here are our top 10 picks.
Starting from number 10:
- 2M effective pixels, APS-C CMOS Sensor: faster readout speed with -6fps continuous shooting
- Prime MII with New Accelerator Unit: allowing better noise suppression and fine-detailed color-rich images even at high ISO
- Pixel Shift Resolution with motion correction: captures four images of the same scene by shifting the image sensor by just one pixel with the SR mechanism
- Shake Reduction Mechanism: compensates for camera shake up to 4.5EV steps.
- Weather-resistant: fully weather-resistant and cold-proof
Pros and Cons
- Very rugged design, fully weatherproof and dustproof, great long-term investment
- Various APS-C lens choices for more versatility
- Great in-body image stabilization feature
- Pixel shift resolution feature is very useful for astrophotography
- Vari-angle display
- Relatively modest RAW shooting buffer
- Burst shooting rate could be better
- 45-point AF: all cross-type AF allowing faster shooting with the optical viewfinder
- 242 Megapixel CMOS (APS-C) sensor
- High-Speed continuous shooting at up to 60 fps
- Dual Pixel CMOS AF: only 0.03 second AF
- ISO range of 100 to 25600: great performance even in low light
- Color Filter System: RGB primary color filters
Pros and Cons
- Great ISO range (100 to 25,600), expendable to 51,200. Reliable performance in low light condition
- Excellent noise reduction with the new image processor, allowing sharper images in high ISOs
- 6fps continuous shots for capturing fast-moving subjects
- Accurate and reliable autofocus with the dual-pixel AF
- Compatible with Canon’s EF-S and EF lines of lenses for versatility
- Relatively expensive for what it offers
- 16 MP: with high-visibility OLED viewfinder with 10,000:1 contrast
- Three 4K photo modes: 4K burst (continually shooting), 4K burst s/s (start and stop bursting) and 4K pre-burst, 1 second prior to shutter release for 60 frames
- Fast AF tracking: intelligent AF tracks the motion vector, size, and color of the subject
- Starlight AF: 4EV low-light AF allows us to clearly capture subjects at night
- Silent shooting: no shutter noise
- Focus peaking: color outline indicates the exact in-focus area along with depth-of-field distance.
Pros and Cons
- Compact and lightweight with good image quality, especially for shots in the dark.
- Fully-articulated touchscreen with large, detailed viewfinder
- Very fast AF that works in low light
- 6-8fps burst shooting to capture star trails and other fast objects
- Great for planetary photos when paired with the 12-42mm lens
- Maximum bulb length is only 2 minutes
- Lacks built-in stabilization
- 9 Megapixel with DX-format image sensor and EXPEED 5 image-processing engine
- Advanced focusing technology, 51 available focus points, 15 cross-type sensors, and group area AF
- 180,000 RGB sensor to improve AF performance during high-speed shooting
- 8 FPS continuous shooting up to 100 JPEG. 50 14-bit lossless compressed RAW frames
- Tilting 3.2-inch Touchscreen, 922K dot
- Rugged and ergonomic design with extensive water sealing to withstand moisture and dust
- 4.2 μm square pixel size
Pros and Cons
- Image buffer can hold up to 50 uncompressed RAWs
- The automated AF fine-tune is very useful
- Excellent high-ISO performance for astrophotography (up to 51200)
- Fast and intuitive touchscreen control
- Unique DX-format sensor for better clarity
- Relatively low rear-screen resolution
- Default noise reduction might be a little high and not for everyone
- 61 MP resolution: full-frame with 35mm back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor
- High speed: up to 10 FPS continuous shooting with AE/AF tracking. 2MP in APS C crop mode
- Hybrid ultra-fast autofocus: 567 Phase detection AF points and 425 contrast AF points
- Accurate color reproduction: 15 stop dynamic Range at low sensitivities for greater Color accuracy
- Noise reduction: Sony BIONZ X processor for dedicated noise reduction
- 4K video capable
- Vibration-free shutter to prevent camera-shake blur
Pros and Cons
- 61MP, amazing resolution with great noise performance and dynamic range
- Great battery life for astrophotography, also with in-camera charging
- Excellent PEG sharpening, noise reduction and color
- Updated weather-sealing measures for outdoor use
- Large, high-resolution electronic viewfinder, very useful
- Large file sizes and slow card write times
- Burst shooting might hurt AF accuracy
- Very expensive
- 24.3MP X-Trans* CMOS III Sensor: reduces moiré and false colors to improve image quality
- X Processor Pro: increases response times to achieve faster AF, lower noise, and better color
- 63 points of weather sealing: dust and moisture resistant
- OLED viewfinder: high-precision 0.48 inch, 2.36 million dot OLED with 0.77x magnification
- Full HD and 4K: 3840×2160 30P/25P/24P shooting (Using a card with the UHS Speed Class 3 or higher)
Pros and Cons
- Lightweight (both the body and lenses), a huge advantage in astrophotography where you’d often need to transport the camera outdoors
- A unique feature to enhance the LCD and EVF for an easier composition in dark condition
- Great high-ISO performance making it possible to use for astrophotography
- RAW files are detailed and dense, and the images retain a lot of shadow detail even when underexposed
- Relatively short battery life, you might need 2 to 3 spare batteries for night-long photography
- Slow wake-up time, which can be an issue in time-sensitive astrophotography
- Intelligent Viewfinder: displays AF points and AF mode, has a horizontal electronic level
- 45-point AF: wide-area, all-cross type AF system with low luminance.
- 32.5 Megapixel CMOS: APS-C sensor providing high-resolution images
- Dual-pixel CMOS AF: for fast focusing speed and smooth tracking in live view
- High ISO speeds: 16000 for still photographs, 12800 for movies
- 4K UHD 30P/Full HD 120P Video
Pros and Cons
- Rugged, weather-sealed body, typical of a Canon camera
- Great dual-pixel AF feature with 45 focus point and faster professor
- Impressive performance in low-light, you can shoot to -3EV, useful for astrophotography
- Wide and expandable ISO range for more clarity
- You can adjust exposure time for still photographs, useful in astrophotography
- Relatively expensive
- Live MOS sensor, capable of capturing moving subjects at 60 FPS (S-AF)
- Maximum 60 fps AF/AE lock sequential shooting: 18 frames per second C AF (silent electronic shutter),15 frames per second S AF, 10 frames per second C AF (mechanical shutter)
- 121 point dual fast AF for both on-chip phase-detection AF and contrast AF
- Pro capture: allowing lag-free shooting so you can always capture the desired moment
Pros and Cons
- Good image quality at relatively high ISO. Noise visible at ISO 6400
- Reliable and fast autofocus, very useful in low-light situations
- Advanced sensors and noise reduction for better and more consistent image quality
- Starry Sky AF feature, allowing us to accurately autofocus on stars. A useful feature for astrophotography
- The ability to pre-program night settings so we don’t need to constantly tweak the camera during observation
- Not the cheapest option
- Doesn’t have a dedicated ISO control dial
- Back-side illuminated: Nikon’s first BSI FX-format full-frame CMOS image sensor with 45.7 megapixels and no optical low-pass filter
- EXPEED 5: quickly processes all 45.7 megapixels of data for lower noise and wider dynamic range
- Near darkness AF: Autofocus down to -4 EV lets you capture in low-light situations.
- 4K Ultra HD video recording: slow motion up to 120 FPS at 1080p
- Tilting touchscreen, focus shift shooting mode, outstanding battery performance and much more; total pixels: 46.89 million
Pros and Cons
- Strong body made of magnesium alloy, weatherproof and rugged
- Reliable performance in both low and high ISO
- Excellent AF speed in low-light condition
- Auto fine-tuning feature for each lens
- Optical viewfinder only cover 98%
- AF illuminator is not available
- Modified infrared-cutting filter for enhanced night sky capturing and recording. Permits high-transmission of hydrogen-alpha rays at 656nm wavelength.
- 3 Megapixel sensor with 5.36 square microns pixel size. Helps capture clear, high-quality astrophotography images.
- 30x optical zoom to allow observation of star trails and faraway objects
- High ISO, up to 40,000 ISO to allow faster shutter speeds with less risk of blur
- Full-frame, Canon’s first astrophotography camera with a full-frame image sensor
- Electronic viewfinder, 0.5-inch EVF allowing 3.69 million pixels and a 23mm eyepoint.
- RF Mount compatible with EF & EF-S Lenses
- Dual Pixel CMOS AF for low-light sensitivity
- Compact and lightweight for comfort and ease of use
Pros and Cons
- EOS Ra has a sensor that is four times more sensitive to hydrogen-alpha (Hα) than Canon’s standard EOS cameras. Can capture objects like nebulae with sharp colors and polished quality
- 30x optical zoom is very useful for astrophotography
- Useful electronic viewfinder, allowing us to focus on the object without relying on live view
- Great focus peaking feature
- Very low noise with great dynamic range
- Wide variety of lens choices
- Doesn’t include an intervalometer
- The display screen doesn’t feature night (red) mode, so can disrupt your night vision
Selecting just one astrophotography camera out of the ten in this list is indeed a very daunting task.
There are so many different products available in the market, and each product offers its unique take on producing high-quality, sharp images at high ISOs and making the camera as stable as possible, among other important features.
For our absolute best pick, although admittedly this was very hard, we went with the:
This is Canon’s flagship camera designed specifically for astrophotography. A great value for its price, with great performance and durability.
However, that’s not saying the others on this list are bad products. We are confident that based on our tests, these ten cameras we have reviewed are indeed the best choices you can have available right now for astrophotography.
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