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The best CCD cameras for astrophotography

The best CCD cameras for astrophotography
(Image credit: Neutronman/Getty Images)

Once upon a time not so long ago, buying a CCD camera for astrophotography meant you needed some serious cash. In the early days of this technology, in the late 1990s, such cameras were incredibly cumbersome, expensive and difficult to use. Fortunately the technology has moved on rapidly and today we are spoilt for choice when it comes to finding the best CCD camera for astrophotography. 

Today there is something for almost every budget and experience level. This of course means it can be difficult to actually make a decision on what to buy. In this guide, we share our pick of the eight best CCD cameras for astrophotography (including some that actually use CMOS sensors), covering all aspects and budget levels. We also suggest two conventional cameras at the end, that are a sensible choice for astrophotography if you want a picture that can take pictures when not tethered to your telescope.

CCD camera specifications and features

Today CCD/CMOS digital imaging cameras generally come in two main types: Mono B&W or one shot color. The mono camera type produces images in grayscale only, so to produce color imagery you'll need a set of RGB filters. One shot color cameras can, as the name implies, produce color images straight off the bat. 

Color imagers are without doubt easier to use if you're after color photos. However, because of the way they one shot color cameras work, the finest imagery still comes from mono cameras employing color filters. To be honest this is an issue only the most demanding astrophotographers need worry about – these days there is a much smaller difference in image quality .

Another consideration with CCD and CMOS cameras is the size of the sensor and the pixel size of the sensor. Your choice will depend on what you wish to photograph. For nebulae, galaxies, nightscapes and so on, you'll need a large sensor giving a big field of view. For lunar or planetary photography, you'll want a smaller sensor giving a smaller field of view. Modern cameras can work in two modes: either taking single still frame images or high speed video streams. The former is generally employed for imaging nebulae and galaxies while the latter is used for imaging the moon and planets.

Almost all of the cameras you can buy today operate via a high speed USB3 interface. In general all will come with their own operating software, however there are many third part packages available, and many of these will actually be better than the manufacturer-supplied software.

Let's get started with our roundup of the best CCD cameras for astrophotography. We've included a range of different astronomical cameras geared to different tasks, from lunar, solar and planetary imaging to long-exposure deep sky photography. Regardless of what you wish to do there is an affordable camera out there that will unquestionably meet or exceed your expectations.

Best CCD cameras for astrophotography

ZWO Optical ASI120MC Color CMOS camera

1. ZWO Optical ASI120MC Color CMOS camera

An ideal low-cost camera to try your hand at astrophotography

Sensor: 1/3″ CMOS AR0130CS (Color) (1280 x 960) | Pixel size: 3.75 micron | Video capture rates: 60fps at 1280x960. 133fps at 640x480 | Capture file formats: JPEG,TIFF, FIT, AVI, SER in 8 or 12bit depth | Connectivity: USB3

Great for moon and planet photography
One shot color capability
Affordable price
Not great for imaging nebulae and galaxies

The ZWO ASI120MC camera is an ideal first camera if you're wanting to try your hand at astrophotography. This dedicated camera is designed to attach your telescope and provide live on-screen video (and enable you to capture video sequences). It is perhaps the ideal choice for those with a keen interest in attempting to try their hand at imaging the moon and planets. Even attached to a small telescope this camera will easily capture details in the cloud belts of Jupiter or countless tiny craters across the lunar surface. It operates by attaching to your laptop PC via a USB3 cable. All software to run the camera can be freely downloaded online.

ZWO Optical ASI183MC Pro Cooled Color CMOS camera

2. ZWO Optical ASI183MC Pro Cooled Color CMOS camera

A choice for those more serious about long exposure deep sky imaging

Sensor: 1″ CMOS IMX183CLK-J/CQJ-J (5496 x 3672) | Pixel size: 2.4 micron | Video capture rates: 5496×3672 @ 19fps. Single long exposure capable. | Capture file formats: JPEG,TIFF, FIT, AVI, SER in 8 or 12bit depth | Connectivity: USB3

Ideal for deep sky imaging
No filter wheel needed
Great features for the price
Expensive

There is no getting away from the fact that dedicated cooled cameras geared toward long-exposure deep sky imaging are expensive. The ZWO ASI183MC Pro is the entry level camera into this market, and while it's still quite pricey, not so long ago a camera like this would have set you back thousands. It offers a two-stage cooling system to minimise noise in longer exposures, and is equipped with a large 20MP CMOS chip. This camera comes in either one shot color or mono models (both are the same price). For photographers keen to try their hand at more serious deep sky astrophotography would not go far wrong with this camera attached to their telescope. With some practice you could easily start capturing images of distant galaxies and nebulae.

Altair Hypercam IMX174 USB3

3. Altair Hypercam IMX174 USB3 mono imaging camera

A high performance astronomical camera at a good price

Sensor: 1″ SONY Exmoor IMX174 Mono CMOS sensor (1920 x 1200) | Pixel size: 5.86 micron | Video capture rates: 1920 x 1200 @ 128fps. Single long exposure capable | Capture file formats: JPEG,TIFF, FIT, AVI, SER in 8 or 12bit depth | Connectivity: USB3

Easy to use
Great all-round performance
Sensitive chip delivering high dynamic range
Mono camera so RBG filers required for color

The Altair Hypercam IMX174 camera is an intermediate level imaging camera designed for both planetary and deep sky imaging applications. It includes a highly sensitive Sony CMOS chip that will deliver images of bright nebulae and galaxies even with fairly short exposures. It’s also superbly well suited to planetary imaging, delivering very high video capture rates of above 100fps. It's a mono chip camera so you’ll need to invest in a filter wheel and color filters if you want to take color imagery (this is very common in astrophotography). The large pixel size of the sensor also means it can be employed for deep sky imaging on longer focal length telescopes such as Schmidt Cassegrains.

Orion Starshoot USB color eyepiece camera II

4. Orion Starshoot USB color eyepiece camera II

A super low-cost option, perfect for kids or complete beginners

Sensor: CMOS 640 x 480 array | Pixel size: 5.6 micron | Video capture rates: 640 x 480 @ 24fps | Capture file formats: JPEG,TIFF, FIT, AVI, SER in 8bit depth | Connectivity: USB3

Incredibly low price
Great for shooting brighter targets
Limited capabilities
Not suitable for deep sky imaging

For those seeking to try their hand at imaging brighter objects like the moon and planets, with a minimum financial outlay, the Orion Starshoot USB color camera is a great place to start. Though limited in what it can do, it will certainly enable you to enjoy real-time views of the moon and planets on your laptop screen, and start capturing images of these objects. This camera would also make a great gift for the young budding astronomer. Another boon is that the software you'll need to process the videos taken with this camera is available for free online.

ZWO ASI290MM CMOS imaging camera

5. ZWO ASI290MM CMOS imaging camera

One of the best cameras available for planetary imaging

Sensor: 1/2.8″ CMOS IMX290/IMX291 (1936 x 1096) | Pixel size: 2.9 micron | Video capture rates: 1936×1096 @ 172fps | Capture file formats: JPEG,TIFF, FIT, AVI, SER in either 8 or 12bit depth | Connectivity: USB3

Highly sensitive chip
Lightning-fast frame rates
Potential to use specialised filters
Very small pixel size
Mono camera so filters required for color imaging

The ZWO ASI290MM is perhaps the ultimate planetary imaging camera currently available. It is used by some of the world’s most renowned planetary astrophotographers. Its highly sensitive chip, coupled with very fast video frame rates ,makes it an ideal choice for those looking for the best possible camera for lunar and planetary imaging. It’s also very easy to use, with free third party software packages available to operate the camera to its full potential. Whether it's attached to a small, beginner's telescope or an advanced, large-aperture telescope, this camera will deliver the goods. The only potential issue to be aware of is that the very small pixel size can be problematic on telescopes with long focal lengths.

QHY8L Cooled Color CCD camera

6. QHY8L Cooled Color CCD camera

A powerful camera ideal for long exposure deep sky imaging

Sensor: APS-C ICX413AQ Color (3110 x 2030) | Pixel size: 7.8 micron | Video capture rates: N/A | Capture file formats: TIFF, FIT in full 16bit depth | Connectivity: USB2

Large color sensor and cooling system
Full 16bit depth
Large pixels ideal for capturing larger nebulae and galaxies
Expensive
For the serious deep sky enthusiasts only

The QHY8L is a great camera for serious enthusiasts looking to capture high quality images of faint celestial targets, such as galaxies and nebulae. Its large, sensitive chip, coupled with a proper cooling system for minimum noise levels make it a great choice for photographing nebulae and galaxies. It also has the added boon of being a one shot color camera so no additional filters are needed – you can start capturing full color imagery straight off the bat. It boasts full 16-bit color depth of the data it captures for maximum dynamic range.

Celestron Neximage Solarsystem Imager

7. Celestron Neximage Solarsystem Imager

A great budget camera for imaging the moon and planets

Sensor: CMOS 1280 x 720 Color sensor | Pixel size: 3.0 micron | Video capture rates: 30fps @ 1280 x 720 | Capture file formats: JPEG, TIFF, FIT, AVI, SER | Connectivity: USB2

Great spec and package for the price
Full color imaging
Processing software included
Limited to lunar and planetary imaging

Considering its price, what you get with the Celestron Neximage solar system imager is an impressively capable package. Not only is the camera capable of taking high quality imagery of the moon and planets it also comes equipped with a software package to process the data with. It’s great to see what is effectively a complete imaging solution for lunar and planetary work offered at such an affordable price. The camera also has the added bonus of producing 10bit data quality for improved dynamic range – again something great to see at this low price.

ATIK 383L+ Mono CCD camera

8. ATIK 383L+ Mono CCD camera

High-end dedicated astronomical CCD camera with high grade sensor

Sensor: CCD Kodak KAF-8300 17.6mm x 13.52m | Pixel size: 5.4 micron | Video capture rates: N/A | Capture file formats: 16bit FITS | Connectivity: USB2

Very low noise characteristics
Top quality images
Mono chip so color filters required

The last entry in our list of the best CCD cameras for astrophotography is the ATIK 383L+. The Kodak 8300 CCD chip is found in a few of the most popular cameras used by experienced deep sky photographers. Its great, low-noise performance, coupled with full 16bit depth, offers data of the highest quality. The camera combines low-noise electronics with a research-grade sensor. Once upon a time a camera such as this would have cost several times the price it’s available at today. For those looking for a top-end astronomical CCD camera at an entry level price the ATIK 383L+ is well worth a look. 

Also consider...

(Image credit: Canon)

9. Canon EOS Rebel T100 DSLR

A great all round choice for the novice astrophotographer

Sensor: APS-C CMOS (5184 x 3456) 22.3 x 14.9mm | Pixel size: 4.3 micron | Video capture rates: Max 60fps at 720p resolution | Capture file formats: JPEG,RAW | Connectivity: USB3, Wi-Fi (IEEE802.11b/g/n), HDMI mini (Type-C) output. 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-E10

Great all-round choice for someone starting photography
Low price
A jack of all trades
Known as EOS 4000D outside North America

Digital SLR cameras are without doubt enormously popular. While they are of course great choices for conventional photographic applications they are also frequently employed for astrophotography. One of the great things about investing in a camera like this is that it will allow you to try your hand at almost any specific area of the subject. They are perhaps best suited to taking picturesque nightscape photographs with the night sky arching over some foreground landscape. However they can also be easily connected to a telescope and used for proper long exposure astrophotography as well as lunar and planetary imaging (as these days all come with high speed video capture capabilities.)

(Image credit: Sony)

10. Sony A7S Mark II

The ultimate mirrorless camera for astrophotography

Sensor: Full frame Sony Exmoor CMOS (4240 x 2832) | Pixel size: 8.3 micron | Video capture rates: 120fps @ 1280 x 960 | Capture file formats: JPEG, RAW, XAVC S 4K, XAVC S HD, AVCHD, MP4 | Connectivity: USB3

Ground breaking low light performance
Great for nightscapes as well as when attached to telescope
More expensive than a DSLR and other full-frame mirrorless models

If you are looking for the ultimate interchangeable lens camera for astrophotography then look no further than the Sony Alpha A7S Mark II. The amazing low light performance of this full frame camera raised many an eyebrow when it appeared on the market. Given the camera sports a large 36mm full frame sensor it also offers a really large chip at an affordable price (especially when compared to dedicated astronomical cameras of similar specification.) This means it is ideally suited to deep sky imaging. It also boasts high speed video capture capabilities so could also be employed for capturing lunar or planetary video sequences if you so wished. A superb high performance camera that will satisfy even the most demanding photographer.

Read more:
Astrophotography: How-to guides, tips and videos on getting your best shots
Astrophotography tools: the best camera, lenses and gear for shooting the night sky
The best telescopes for astrophotography
The best binoculars in 2019