Once upon a time not so long ago, the best CCD cameras for astrophotography required serious cash. In the early days of this technology, in the late Nineties, 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.
Unlike normal digital cameras, a CCD camera is specifically designed to work with telescopes, and is optimized for photographing deep space.
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 three 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The QHY 8L 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.
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.
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.
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. Also consider the recently launched updated version - the Sony A7S III.
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.)
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