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The best camera for astrophotography: tools and lenses to shoot night skies

The best camera for astrophotography: tools, lenses and tools for shooting the night sky

Want to shoot the stars? The first thing you need is the best camera for astrophotography – that is, a DSLR or mirrorless camera that enables you to open the shutter for at least 30 seconds. You'll also need a tripod, RAW format photos to spruce-up in Photoshop, and last but not least great timing. 

The latter is imperative if you want to photograph the night sky and catch specific celestial events like the Perseid meteor shower, or phenomena such as the Milky Way (which is best photographed in summer) or the Northern Lights (in winter).

However, the camera you use for astrophotography does make a difference, as do the lens and tripod. There are also various other handy camera accessories that will allow you to experiment with nightscapes and take your images to the next level, and if you're getting way out into the countryside to escape all the urban light pollution, you might want to take a look at our list of the best camera backpacks.

In terms of specialist astrophotography equipment for 'deep sky' images of star clusters, nebulae and galaxies, the list is endless (and very expensive) and becomes dependent on having good quality astrophotography telescopes.

 That's verging on astronomy, so we've concentrated here on good value astrophotography gear that the average photographer could consider for obtaining unique astro-landscape shots without going to huge expense. Here's our pick of essential astrophotography tools to take your night sky photos to the next level.

Read more: Astrophotography tips

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(Image credit: Nokishita / Canon)
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(Image credit: Canon)
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(Image credit: Nokishita / Canon)

1. Canon EOS Ra

Canon's first ever full-frame astrophotography camera is a winner

Sensor: Full-frame 30.3MP CMOS (6720 x 4480) 36 x 24mm | Pixel size: 5.36 micron | Video capture rates: 4K 30fps, 1080p 60fps | Capture file formats: JPEG, RAW | Connectivity: USB 3.1, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, HDMI mini (Type-C), E3-type terminal – operate with Canon lenses or connect directly to telescope via low cost adapter | Operating software: Canon or third party software available online | Power: Li-ion Battery LP-E6 / LP-E6N

Specialized full-frame sensor
30x Live View & viewfinder zoom
4K video
CR3 (RAW) files not yet supported by some astro software 
35mm sensor needs large image circle

Canon's last dedicated astrophotography camera was the Canon EOS 60Da back in 2010 – a capable but crop sensor camera, and built on the back of decade-old DSLR tech. By contrast, the Canon EOS Ra is an astro camera with a huge 30.MP full-frame image sensor – itself a luxury in the world of astrophotography. However, this is no stock sensor; the infrared-cutting filter is modified to enable four times the amount of hydrogen 656nm alpha rays, enabling a higher transmission of deep red IR rays without the need for specialized optics or accessories. It also boasts an incredibly useful 30x zoom on both the rear screen or electronic viewfinder, as well as the ability to record crisp 4K video. Some of the more boutique third-party software is still playing catch-up to Canon's RAW files, and you'll need to make sure that your optics can support the image circle of the larger sensor (though there are in-camera cropping options), but otherwise this is a clear winner for shooting the stars.  

Canon EOS Ra review

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2. Sony A7 III

Stunning low light performance thanks to this terrific full-frame all-rounder's insane ISO

Type: DSLR | Sensor: Full frame | Megapixels: 24.2MP | Lens mount: Sony-E | Screen: 3.0in tilting touchscreen, 921,600 dots | Viewfinder: XGA OLED type | Max burst speed: 10fps | Max video resolution: 4K UHD at 30/24fps | User level: Enthusiast/professional

Highly sophisticated AF system
4K video capabilities
Imbalance with larger lenses
No drive or focus mode dials

Until the Sony A7 mirrorless camera came along, the best astrophotography cameras were all about DSLRs. The camera's latest iteration, the Sony A7 III, takes low light performance on by marrying a full-frame sensor with very high ISO capabilities. Its 24.2MP full-frame Exmor R CMOS and ISO 51,200 – which is expandable to a whopping 204,800 – are the main reasons why astrophotographers are fond of it (these very high ISOs even make it possible to video the night sky through a telescope using the A7). The camera's relatively small size (at 650g) and three-inch tilting touchscreen also appeal – the latter can be very useful when shooting upwards at the night sky. However, this camera is on our list because of its insane ISO. It's an expensive option though, particularly if you pair it with the Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8 wide-angle lens. To save cash, go for the Sony A7 II or the original Sony A7.

Read more: Sony A7 III review

(Image credit: Future)

3. Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art lens

The fastest, widest-angle prime lens for nightscapes

Mounts: Full Frame (Canon EF, Nikon F, Sony E, Sigma SA) | Elements/groups: : 16/11 | Angle of view: 114.2° | Max aperture: f/1.8 | Min aperture: f/16 | Focal length: 14mm | Aperture blades: 9 | Dimensions: 95.4(w)x126(l)mm | Weight: 1,170g

Collects twice the light of most other lenses
Sharp, clean and bright Milky Way
Very quiet auto-focus

Is this the best lens for astrophotography and for shooting the Milky Way? Available with mounts for full-frame DSLR cameras from Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Sony (E-mount), this wide-angle prime lens from Sigma is all about speed. At f/1.8, it’s the fastest wide-angle lens in existence, and in dark conditions, that’s critical. It means that a long exposure shot of the Milky Way, something that usually takes about 25 seconds to image, can be done in about 10 seconds. Since stars begin to obviously blur in such images at 25 seconds, this Sigma makes much brighter, sharper astro-images possible. It’s also got an excellent (and quiet) auto-focus for use in daylight. However, this is a heavy lens that only dedicated astrophotographers will want to carry.

The best lenses for astrophotography 

4. Samyang 14mm f2.8 wide-angle lens

A great value ultra-wide astrophotography lens for nightscape photography

Mounts: Full Frame, APS-C | Elements/groups: 14/10 | Angle of view: 114° | Max aperture: f/2.8 | Min aperture: F/22 | Focal length: 14mm | Apreture Blades: 6 | Dimensions: 87(w)x96.1(l)mm | Weight: 552g

Very affordable
Great for beginners
Not weather-sealed 
Not for professionals

If you want to photograph the night sky, the Milky Way or a meteor shower, get a super wide-angle lens. As well as fitting in more sky to make composition much easier, fast wide-angle lenses collect lots of light and can be used to take much longer exposures than telephoto lenses before stars begin to blur. The Samyang 14mm f/2.8 is a 14mm lens with an aperture of f/2.8. Sometimes also sold under the Rokinon brand (in the U.S.) and available for Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fujifilm, Sony and Samsung cameras, this is a manual lens that can easily be set to 'infinity' focus, and we think it's one of the best astrophotography lenses you can start with. It even has its own Flickr group. There's also a more expensive auto-focus variant (for using in daylight), the Samyang AF 14 f/2.8 lens, which was announced earlier this year.

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5. Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB tripod

Stable, flexible and packed with features usually found on higher-end tripods

Maximum load: 6.9kg | Maximum height: 173cm | Minimum height: 142.2cm | Folded length: 71.5cm | Number of leg sections: 3 | Weight: 2.5kg

Excellent value
Heavier aluminium build 
Larger folded profile

The best choice for astrophotography and night-time landscapes is a full-size and very sturdy tripod. That's a shame, because the hobby usually requires walking off into the wilderness where equipment is at a premium, but it's nevertheless worth avoiding short travel tripods. That's particularly true if your camera doesn't have a tilting LCD screen, because you're likely to be pointing the camera upwards. However, you also can't afford for a gust of wind to ruin a long exposure photo. Weighing 2.4kg, the Vanguard Alta Pro 263AB tripod has three sections (the fewer sections, the better) and a ball head that rotates through 360 degrees. It also includes a quick-release plate and handy bubble levels.

Read more: The best tripods right now

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6. Skywatcher Star Adventurer travel mount

Avoid star trails with this well-built, lightweight and compact equatorial tracking mount

Mount Type: Ultra compact equatorial tracking platform | Motor Drive: DC Servo | Tracking Modes: Sidereal, Solar or Lunar tracking rate for both Northern & Southern hemisphere; time-lapse photography (12hr/4hr/2hr rev) | Auto-guiding interface: built-in, ST4 | Polar finder: Built-in | Weight: 1.2kg

Straightforward assembly
Lightweight and portable
Targets must be manually framed
No WiFi capability 

Earth's rotation means that the stars appear to move, so any shot where the shutter is open for more than about 25 seconds (the exact number depends on the focal length of a lens) will display blurred 'star trails'. You'll also notice that some objects that seem really bright to the naked eye don't end up looking very good in your photos. The solution to both problems is a simple equatorial mount like the Skywatcher Star Adventurer, which sits between a tripod and a camera, and moves in sync with the Earth's rotation. It means you can point a 600mm lens on a DSLR at a target like the Andromeda Galaxy and open the shutter for 90 seconds. The result is no star-trailing, and a bright image of a distant galaxy. The only issue is that all equatorial mounts need to be aligned to the star Polaris – it's not difficult, but it takes some practice.

RGBS LCD time-lapse intervalometer remote timer shutter

7. RGBS LCD time-lapse intervalometer remote timer shutter

A great value timer that's reliable and does the job

Timer delay: 0s to 99hrs 59min 59s in one-second increments | Interval: 1s to 99hrs 59min 59s in one-second increments | Number of shots: 1 to 399 (unlimited) | Power source: two AAA 1.5V LR03 alkaline batteries | Dimensions: 155 x 40 x 18mm | Weight: 105g

Easy to use
Programming in the dark is tricky
You'll need charged batteries

You should always use a remote shutter release – either wired or wireless – to prevent vibrations when opening the shutter for a long exposure. However, if you want to take a series of timed exposures (perhaps to produce a star-trail image) and don't have the in-camera ability to do so, an external intervalometer can be really useful. Explicitly designed for DSLR time-lapse photography, they enable automatic shutter triggering; but swerve the big brand attempts since this is a commodity market. You'll see brands like RGBS – we like the RGBS LCD Time Lapse Intervalometer Remote Timer Shutter – QUMOX, Neewer and Jintu online, but they're all essentially the same product. You get an exposure count, an interval timer so you can leave a gap between each image (handy for letting the sensor cool down for 15 or so seconds between shots, especially on a crop-sensor camera), and you can take single exposures lasting as long as you want.

Read more: the best camera remotes

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8. iOptron SkyTracker Pro

An alternative lightweight, portable star tracker that’s easy to align

Mount Type: Ultra compact single axis EQ | Motor Drive: Single-axis DC Servo | Tracking speed: 1X Cel, 1/2 Cel, solar, lunar, N/S | Weight: 1.2kg

Ultra portable
1.36kg max payload

Another star tracker mount much like the Skywatcher Star Adventurer, the iOptron SkyTracker is another reasonably affordable way into either long-exposure astro-landscapes, or 'deep sky' astrophotography using a zoom lens. Able to fit directly to regular photography tripods, and able to take a camera and lens weighing up to 3kg, the SkyTracker Pro has an illuminated polar scope for precise alignment with Polaris, the North Star. It's best used with the TS-Optics Ball Head TS-BH-51AT.

Great targets for DSLR cameras on star tracker mounts include the Andromeda Galaxy and Perseus Double Cluster – both rising in the east in autumn – and winter's Orion Nebula, just below Orion's Belt.

The best star trackers

9. Celestron 93419 T-Ring Adapter

A useful addition to your astrophotography tool kitbag

Compatible with: Canon EOS cameras (other varieties exist) | Package weight: 0.05kg | Box dimensions (LxWxH) : 6.9x6.6x1.8cm

Snug connection
Well made
Set screws can need retightening

If you do have a telescope, or you think you might have occasional access to one, a cheap T-Ring Adapter is a useful addition to your astrophotography kitbag. A standard screw mount for cameras that screws on in place of a lens, it enables a DSLR body to be attached to a telescope. The Celestron 93419 T-Ring Adapter, from telescope-maker Celestron, has a T-Ring specifically for Canon cameras, but the Celestron 93402 is also available for Nikon cameras. To attach it to a telescope means adding a T-Adapter uniquely designed for specific telescopes, which a telescope-owner will usually have.

If you just want to photograph the moon, a great alternative is to just put your smartphone up to a telescope’s eyepiece; it’s easy enough to do free-hand, but the Carson HookUpz 2.0 Universal Smartphone Optics Adapter makes it even easier.

PhotoPills app

10. PhotoPills app

A must-have app for astrophotographers

Platforms: iOS and Android | Augmented reality: Yes | Drone mode: Yes

Helps plan Milky Way and Moon shots
Contains geodetic data
Learning curve

Exactly when does the Milky Way rise? Where will it rise? Get that stuff wrong and you’re going to be looking at a wasted trip to a dark sky location. Cue PhotoPills, available for iOS and Android, which gives you precise positioning for the Sun, the Moon and the Milky Way. Just as good for shooting a moonrise or a sunset as it is for taking images of our galaxy arcing across the night sky, PhotoPills shows exactly where and when your targets will rise, and how they will move, as seen from any specific location. It also includes geodetic data so you can see exactly when your target will be behind a mountain range. It costs $9.99.

15 of the best photo apps

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