You really need one of the best cameras for astrophotography if you want to take pictures of the cosmos. Sure, you’ll also need a few other bits, like a good quality lens and a sturdy tripod, but the camera should be first on your list of priorities. Luckily there’s plenty of choice available, but you’ll have to think carefully about what you want the camera to do.
Some cameras are so dedicated to astro that they forego the usual body and lens mount in favour of a cylindrical form factor that connects directly to your telescope eyepiece. These have their benefits – noise levels are often lower, their dedicated nature means the colour balance will be spot-on (some are mono, for use with filters and later processing) while being able to take direct control of both scope and camera through a laptop is very liberating.
More common are the DSLR or mirrorless models you’ll find around the necks of enthusiastic amateurs, which are useful for a wider range of photography. Although a few of these have been modified by their manufacturers into more dedicated astro-cameras by removing the IR filter that usually covers the sensor, letting through more of the wavelengths emitted by deep-sky objects.
Sensor sensitivity is worth taking into account when considering one of these for astro use, as a lower noise level, and therefore higher usable sensitivity setting, will gather more light with each exposure. Some advanced cameras have a night sky mode in their autofocus settings, but almost all have a screen on the back that can be zoomed into, allowing for very precise manual focus adjustments. If you’re going down this route, a screen that tilts and swivels will make life much easier, as a fixed screen will always be tilted downward when you’ve got your lens aimed at the sky.
There are two other things you’ll need in your kit bag: one of the best lenses for astrophotography and one of the best tripods. Lenses are key to collecting light quickly and a tripod will keep your camera steady when you’re trying to focus on distant objects. We’d also recommend picking up a lens heater, to avoid things like fog and condensation on cold nights.
But before you start looking through accessories, here’s our round-up of the best cameras for astrophotography.
Nikon D850: Best for all-round performance day or night
The Nikon D850 DSLR is one heck of a powerhouse. The D850 can capture incredibly high resolution stills images with insane detail and still manages to keep noise relatively low. Though released in 2017, this old dog already knows the newest of tricks thanks to its near-future-proofed 4K UHD 30FPS video shooting ability.
It has an optical viewfinder like all DSLRs, which makes it a little more difficult to compose and focus for night sky imaging, but the rear tilting touchscreen more than makes up for this. It has two card slots for SD and XQD/CF Express cards to make sure it can record all that fabulous detail quickly. It is considerably more heavy, bigger and bulkier than astro-specific cameras, or mirrorless competition, but thanks to its rugged construction and excellent weather sealing it will last for many years to come. Full button illumination (also seen on the then flagship D5) means it’s easy to operate in the dark without the need for a headlamp. And thanks to its expandable ISO sensitivity range of 102400 it can practically see in the dark, though image quality will be drastically reduced at this level.
Canon EOS Ra: Best for wide field astrophotography
Specifically designed as an astrophotography mirrorless camera, the Ra is based on the slightly older EOS R but has improved functionality for night-time astro shooting. An autofocus range that goes down to -6 EV means it can get sharp shots without the need for manual focusing in some situations. At 30.3MP it’s one of the higher resolution cameras in this list. That means bigger print quality images but comes at the cost of image noise. Thankfully, the resolution isn’t that high for a full-frame 35mm mirrorless camera, so the image noise is still kept to a minimum.
Relatively lightweight and compact, the Canon EOS Ra only has one SD card slot which may prove frustrating for some that like to backup to two cards. Its EVF however is high resolution and gives an impressive view of the night sky when in use. It can also record 4K Ultra High Definition videos at 30FPS for detailed movie footage. Ideal for celestial objects, this camera has an infrared cutoff filter that sits in front of the image sensor for greater sensitivity to hydrogen-alpha light, so that means stars as well as nebulae are easier to capture.
The only drawback? Canon has recently announced that it’s ceasing production on this model, so it might be hard to get your hands on.
Sony A7 III: Best for low noise astro shots
A favorite among astrophotographers that like to shoot mirrorless, the Sony A7 III is one of the brightest stars of the astro camera world (pardon the pun). Though its EVF isn’t as detailed as others on this list it still provides a helpful exposure-ramped view when composing astrophotographs. If you need to nail focus when shooting in low light then the A7 III does a great job because the autofocus detection range goes as low as -3EV.
It has great image noise handling and gives good results even when ramped up to ISO 51200. For those not too worried about video (though it can capture 4K UHD at 30FPS) ISO can jump higher, expanding to an insane 204800 for stills photography. Shooting all night often takes a real drain on the battery, especially when it has to power both an EVF and a back screen, but this camera can shoot 710 still shots via the rear LCD monitor and is CIPA-rated well above average for a mirrorless of this type. It is a little more expensive than others in its class but if you’re after a real low light performer that can also shoot well in other areas then the A7 III might be the one for you.
Nikon Z6: Best all-rounder for mirrorless
Though superseded a while ago by the superior Nikon Z6 II, the Z6 – one half of the first two mirrorless cameras Nikon ever produced, is still one heck of a camera and brilliant in low light. For our money, we think the Z6 is actually better for astrophotographers than its big brother the Z7 due to the lower resolution. A lower resolution on the same full-frame camera means there’s less image noise to detract from the final shot – something that plagues astrophotographs the world over.
It has a wonderfully realistic, clear Electronic Viewfinder with more than a million more dots than the Sony A7 III which makes it even better for composing and shooting the night sky. Though the Z-mount lens range is expanding, it’s still not as established as other models in this roundup. However, there’s an FTZ adapter which converts it for F-mount lens use which opens up the whole back catalogue of Nikon-fit lenses from the past several decades. It’s a little heavier than other mirrorless cameras too, but nothing you’ll notice if you’re already used to carrying around a telescope.
Canon EOS 6D Mk2: Best budget astro camera
What this DSLR lacks in modern features it makes up for in affordability. For those on a budget or wishing to dip their toes into astrophotography without breaking the bank, the Canon EOS 6D Mark II is a brilliant full-frame option. Its useful vari-angle touchscreen display makes it easy to compose the scene even if the camera is pointing directly up at the sky. A detailed 4K timelapse feature records maximum detail during longer shoots whether you’re shooting with a slider, or star tracker.
Unfortunately, it only captures full-HD 1080p video footage, but it records this at 60FPS for smooth results. Its dynamic range also leaves something to be desired, but if combined with plenty of calibration frames then this shouldn’t make much of a difference once images have been processed. A single SD card slot might have nervous shooters biting their nails during longer sessions, but it’s 102400 expandable ISO and 26.2MP stills capture means results will be clear and crisp every time.
ZWO Optical ASI183MC: Best for portability and detailed images
One of the best dedicated astrophotography cameras out there, the ZWO Optical ASI183MC is the color (but uncooled) version of the ZWO Optical ASI183. That means you won’t need to bring a stack of RGB filters with you when heading out to shoot. It’s also much smaller and lighter than other astro cams because there’s no dedicated cooling paraphernalia. However, that does mean noise may be a little more of a problem since the chip isn’t as cool. Still, at 1.6e read noise it’s not a camera to be sniffed at.
An excellent 84% Quantum Efficiency peak makes this camera one of the better, more efficient options when it comes to astrophotography. A high pixel count at approximately 20.48MP and a maximum frame rate of 19FPS at full resolution makes the ZWO Optical ASI183MC ideal for solar or lunar photography. Reduce the resolution further and you could capture hundreds of frames a second if needed. One downside, as with all dedicated astro cams, is that you’ll need to plug it into a computer with dedicated software to run it. Though, a fast USB3.0 port means a healthy data transfer for the higher frame rate captures.
QHY 8L cooled CCD camera: Best for low image noise in a CCD
Coming in at a price comparable to many DSLRs, the QHY 8L cooled CCD camera is a one shot color CCD camera worthy of being your next astrophotography camera. It comes with two stage TEC cooling with construction designed to wick away heat quickly. This keeps the massive APS-C Sony ICX413AQ Super HAD CCD sensor below 40 degrees Celsius to minimise dark image noise.
Narrow and lightweight, this dedicated astro camera is extremely portable, even with its on-board cooling system. However, the 6MP stills leave a lot to be desired, especially when compared with modern competition from DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that are punching up at 50MP. The overall build is good though, with a matte finish to avoid glare and flare when used in Hyperstar systems, and it has a cable clip to ensure a strong connection at all times, without pulling at the connection port.
ZWO Optical ASI533 Pro: Best for zero amp glow images
Probably the biggest selling point of the ZWO Optical ASI 533 Pro is the fact it has zero amp glow. While amp glow can be taken out in post-processing software (depending on how bad it is) it’s extra time spent developing an image when you could just be getting it right at the source. By not requiring extra processing you’re also keeping a cleaner, more efficient resulting image.
This camera only comes in a color version, so monochromatic enthusiasts should put their RGB filters back in their pockets. It has a good 80% Quantum Efficiency and a high 20FPS frame rate for those needing to shoot fast. As with almost all dedicated astro cameras the ZWO Optical ASI 533 Pro will need an external power supply to run. A 9MP square sensor might seem a little unusual to some photographers but it has 1.0e read noise and comes equipped with a 14 bit ADC for good dynamic range.
As well as a good camera for capturing the stars, what’s just as important is how you hook-up and stabilise your equipment. If choosing a DSLR or mirrorless camera, it’s crucial to find the right lens for the job. In wide-field imaging that means a fast wide-angle lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider to let as much light in as possible. For deeper field work a fast telephoto lens might suffice, otherwise you’ll need to find a suitable adapter to mount onto a telescope.
Most telescopes come with a sturdy base on which to hold the payload of the device itself, but it’s important to counterbalance everything if you’re adding a camera. Dedicated counterbalance weights should either come with your kit or can be bought separately. The same goes for traditional through the lens shooting: make sure you have a tripod and tripod head that can support the combined payload of the camera and lens, otherwise you’ll have issues with the camera drifting during long exposures and imagery will become blurred.