Choosing a camera for astrophotography can be a daunting task. Today, we are spoiled for choice with a huge range of different manufacturers and models to choose from. The company ZWO has been producing Astro-imaging cameras for a decade now, and as the years have progressed, they have become one of the most popular manufacturers of affordable cameras for astrophotography.
ZWO ASI183MC Pro: Key Specs
Sensor: Sony IMX183CQJ-J color (5496 x 3672, 20.2 MP)
Pixel size: 2.4 micron
ADC: 12 bit
FPS: 19 frames per second (at full frame) – much faster using region of interest (ROI.)
Cooling: 12v two stage, -45ºC below ambient
Peak Quantum Efficiency: 84%
Interface: USB 3.0
Dimensions: 78 x 73.5mm
Weight: 14.46 oz
The ZWO ASI183MC Pro camera is aimed at those looking to purchase a dedicated multi-purpose camera for astrophotography. Once upon a time, cameras such as this would have set you back a tidy four-figure sum, but with the advent of affordable technology from Chinese manufacturers such as ZWO, the playing field has completely changed. Cameras once costing a small fortune are within reach of a much wider range of consumers nowadays.
This model offers a full color camera with on board cooling system to minimise noise for long exposure astrophotography, as well as being suitable for short exposure lunar and planetary imaging. It also comes packaged with a variety of useful accessories to help get you up and running easily.
In this review, we put the camera through its paces under the night sky on a multitude of different targets to see how it performs.
ZWO ASI183MC Pro review: Design
The ZWO ASI183MC Pro comes in a compact design typical of many cameras of this type. Its small 78 x 73.5mm body is of sturdy construction with a multitude of ports on the rear of the camera body along with prominent cooling vents. The camera itself comes equipped with a multitude of accessories to get you started straight out of the box.
The camera connects to a PC via the supplied USB3 cable, and drivers to run the camera can be downloaded from the ZWO website. We had no trouble at all having the camera up and running within a few minutes.
In the box along with the camera itself comes a variety of accessories. The camera itself comes in a small, padded zip bag. Also included are a multitude of different adapters giving you options on how to connect it to your telescope or attach other accessories.
On the rear face of the camera are two USB2 ports for connecting/power accessories such as an auto guider which most will require for serious long exposure work. The camera cooling system is powered by a 12v supply, which is not included with the camera but can be purchased separately.
ZWO ASI183MC Pro review: Performance
Testing the ASI183MC Pro for Astro-imaging started with testing on the planets. Jupiter was well placed in the night sky coming out of a favorable opposition, so it presented a good first test subject. We attached the camera to our 14” (36cm) telescope and slewed the telescope over to Jupiter.
One thing to note immediately is that you’ll need a UV/IR blocking filter for this camera otherwise the color will be polluted by IR signal. For example, when imaging Jupiter the on-screen image looks pink as a result of this. Such filters are widely and easily available and are an important accessory for anyone doing astrophotography with dedicated astronomical imaging cameras such as this one.
With Jupiter, since much of the field was not required, we used the region of interest (ROI) feature to crop down the captured area. This allows the camera to run at very high frame rates desirable for imaging the planets. The camera easily ran comfortably at 100fps capturing data quickly and easily. Imaging the planets with color cameras such as this is always good fun, as you can often see many details and colors on their disks.
You can also use the ZWO ASI183MC Pro as a mono camera. We attempted some near IR captures of Jupiter through an IR685nm filter and again the camera performed superbly for the task. Many of the modern Sony CMOS sensors such as the one used in the ASI183MC Pro have great sensitivity in the near IR wavelengths which is ideal for imaging the planets.
After shooting Jupiter we then turned to Saturn – a more challenging planetary target. Again, the ZWO ASI183MC Pro performed very well producing good quality.
Next came the tests for Deep Sky imaging. For this, we decided to wait for a decent clear and moonless night. For the initial tests, we decided to try imaging with the camera without using the cooling system to see just how well it would perform ‘out of the box’ so to speak.
We decided to shoot a series of 60-second exposures of M42 – the famous Orion Nebula with the camera attached to a small refracting telescope. Even using short exposures such as this, a tremendous amount of detail is recorded. The familiar red wisps of nebulosity fanning out from the core of the nebula are apparent, and the whole scene looked very impressive. By stacking several such images together, we were able to produce a nice smooth result to be processed using image processing software such as Photoshop. So, over the course of around an hour, we took lots of exposures of the nebula to stack and process later on (the result of which is presented in this review). The result is certainly impressive, especially given the camera cooling system was not used. We did, however, apply a dark frame correction to the image to remove hot pixels. The data output from the camera is remarkably clean.
We then decided to fire up the camera cooling system and try a few shots using it. The cooling system is only required if you are going to use the camera for long single exposures (several minutes). In this instance, it does make a notable difference to reduce noise across the image.
Overall, the performance of the ZWO ASI183MC Pro was impressive. It easily produced good, clean images of the brighter deep-sky targets and operated throughout the imaging sessions without any issues.
ZWO ASI183MC Pro review: Functionality
Operating the ZWO ASI183MC Pro camera is a straightforward process. Drivers can be downloaded from the ZWO website as can camera control software which you can use to operate the camera (called ASI Studio). The camera is also supported by other third-party software which also works extremely well to run the camera. Programs such as Firecapture will run the ZWO cameras and are available online to download for free.
The camera itself is powered directly from the USB connection. A separate power supply is only needed if you wish to run the camera cooling system (only really needed for very long exposure work). Once connected to your PC you’ll see a live preview on screen. On the PC we tested the camera on, it easily achieved the quoted 19 fps rate at full frame running.
For those looking to use the ASI83MC Pro for long exposure work, you’ll need to get a suitable 12V power supply to run the camera cooling system. ZWO offers suitable ones for sale, or a third party one will do (which is what we used for the purposes of this review).
Should you buy the ZWO ASI183MC Pro?
For those looking to take their first step at buying a dedicated astronomical imaging camera without the hassle of using a mono camera, you can’t go wrong with the ZWO ASI183MC Pro. It’s a great multi-purpose imaging camera that can produce excellent images of both planetary and deep-sky targets. It’s also incredibly easy to set up and use, which is a major bonus.
For the price, the ZWO ASI183MC Pro offers some impressive specs and is far more affordable than the equivalent high-end mono astronomical imaging cameras of similar resolution. No product is perfect, however, and this is no exception. It would be good to see a PSU and UR/IR blocking filter included as part of the standard package as these are essential accessories – the filter especially.
Another point worth mentioning is how the camera compares to a similarly priced DSLR from Canon/Nikon. Image quality is similar, and of course, the DSLR can be used for conventional photography too, so this is something worth considering.