Best cameras for astrophotography


When looking for the best cameras for astrophotography there are many things to consider. The first choice is deciding whether to opt for a DSLR, mirrorless, or dedicated astrophotography camera. Most people are familiar with DSLR and mirrorless cameras as they also handily double as cameras for landscapes, portraiture, wildlife and many other disciplines which make them a safe financial bet if you’re wanting to shoot a bunch of different photographic subjects. However, dedicated astro cameras are less well known. They can’t operate during the day like a normal camera but instead are perfectly balanced for nighttime imagery.

Dedicated astro cameras have no screens, no lenses, no grips, and not even a power source. They’re designed to plug into a computer or laptop and run alongside dedicated software in order to image the night sky. The benefit of using them is lower image noise, better thermal efficiency due to specialised cooling technology (in some models), and it’s often easier to attach them directly to a telescope. They’re also smaller than DSLRs since they don’t require buttons or other hardware for operation.

Other things to consider when looking for the best camera for astrophotography is its sensitivity to light measured in ISO in DSLRs and mirrorless, or gain in dedicated astro cams. The higher the sensitivity the brighter your frames will be when capturing starry shots, but this also risks the increase of image noise. Autofocus (for DSLR and mirrorless) also works less well at night, but some astro and low-light specific cameras have a low autofocus detection range so will make it easier to get sharp shots. 

Electronic Viewfinders on mirrorless cameras also make it easier to compose images at night because they can digitally ramp the exposure of the scene in front of you to make it easier to see, but DSLRs with their optical viewfinders can just rely on the back screen. But which one is right for you, and how do you find the best camera for astrophotography? Well, luckily that’s what this guide is all about.

This is part of our series on astrophotography – we also have guides outlining the best telescopes, along with articles on lens heaters and intervalometers which can be useful when you’re capturing images of the night sky. If you’re new to the field, have a read through our beginner’s guide to astrophotography – and if you’re still undecided on which camera is best for you, read up on all the differences in our article on DSLR vs mirrorless models. 

Nikon D850: Best for all-round performance day or night

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Nikon D850

A workhorse and detail-oriented powerhouse, this 45.4MP DSLR is possibly one of the best cameras for astro full stop

Type: : DSLR | Sensor: : 45.4MP, Full-frame 35mm | Lens mount: : F-mount | ISO range: : 64-25600 (102400 expandable) | Viewfinder size/resolution: : Optical, 0.75x mag | Video capability: : 4K UHD 30FPS | Weight: : 915g | Size: : 146 x 124 x 78.5 mm | Memory card type: : 1x SD/SDHC/SDXC and UHS-II, 1x XQD/CF Express

Huge stills resolution for extra detail 

Native compatibility with F-mount lens range 

Reliable and durable weather sealing 

Bigger and bulkier than mirrorless 

Low ISO range 

Optical viewfinder 

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

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Canon EOS Ra

Brilliant astro-dedicated mirrorless camera with all the power of the EOS R but none of the drawbacks

Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: 30.3MP, Full-frame 35mm | Lens mount: RF | ISO range: 100-40000 (102400 expanded) | Viewfinder size/resolution: 0.5-inch, 3.69 million dots | Video capability: 4K UHD 30FPS | Weight: 580g | Size: 135.8 x 98.3 x 84.4mm | Memory card type: SD/SDHC/SDXC and UHS-II

Large image sensor 

Wide ISO sensitivity range 

– 6 EV Autofocus 

Only 30.3MP 

Single SD card slot 

No Autofocus joystick 

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

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Sony A7 III

A low light beast, this camera set a precedent for mirrorless cameras which carries it through to today as one of the best astro cameras

Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: 24.2MP, Full-frame 35mm | Lens mount: E-mount | ISO range: 50-51200 (204800 for stills) | Viewfinder size/resolution: 0.5-inch, 2.35 million dots | Video capability: 4K UHD 30fps | Weight: 650g | Size: 126.9mm x 95.6mm x 73.7mm | Memory card type: 1x SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-I/II compliant) 1x Multi slot for Memory | : Stick Duo/SD/SDHC/SDXC (UHS-I compliant)

Incredible low light video performance

Good battery life

93% AF point coverage 

Certainly a more expensive option

Low stills resolution compared to competition

New version now available

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

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Nikon Z6

Better than its bigger, more expensive brother, this camera was ahead of the curve when it comes to high-end features and clear night-time shots

Type: Mirrorless | Sensor: 24.5MP, Full-frame 35mm | Lens mount: Z-mount | ISO range: 100-51200 (204800 expandable) | Viewfinder size/resolution: : 0.5-inch, 3.69 million dots | Video capability: 4K UHD 30fps | Weight: 705g | Size: 134 x 100.5 x 69.5 mm | Memory card type: 1x SD/SDHC/SDXC and UHS-II, 1x XQD/CF Express

Low image noise 

Superb electronic viewfinder 

Great low light Autofocus 

Stills resolution not the highest 

Limited lens range 

Superseded by Z6 II 

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

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Canon EOS 6D Mk2

A helpful vari-angle touch screen screen and 4K timelapse feature makes it easy to compose in even the darkest skies

Type: DSLR | Sensor: 26.2MP, Full-frame 35mm | Lens mount: EF-mount | ISO range: 100-40000 (102400 expandable) | Viewfinder size/resolution: Optical, 0.71x mag | Video capability: 1920 x 1080, 60fps | Weight: 765g | Size: 144.0 x 110.5 x 74.8 mm | Memory card type: SD, SDHC or SDXC (UHS-I) card

4K timelapse feature 

Handy vari-angle touchscreen display 

A lot of camera for the money 

No 4K video recording 

Only one SD memory card slot 

Low dynamic range a shame 

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

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ZWO Optical ASI183MC

High resolution stills with an astounding frame rate, this dedicated colorr astro cam is also one of the lightest

Type: Color CMOS astronomy camera | Sensor: 20.1MP, 1-inch | Lens mount: Scope mounted | ISO range: N/A | Video capability: 5496 x 3672, 19 FPS | Weight: 140g | Size: 62mm diameter | Memory card type: N/A

Electronic shutter minimises camera movement 

19FPS perfect for solar/lunar photography 

USB 3.0 output 

Scope mounted only 

Requires dedicated software to run 

Images at 12 bit depth maximum 

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

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QHY 8L cooled CCD camera

This two-stage cooled camera is perfect for clear night sky images, devoid of noise, but only shoots 6MP stills

Type: Color CCD astronomy camera | Sensor: 6MP, APS-C | Lens mount: Scope mounted | ISO range: N/A | Viewfinder size/resolution: N/A | Video capability: N/A | Weight: 400g | Size: 63mm diameter | Memory card type: N/A

Built-in cooling for better thermal dissipation 

Low image noise 

Color sensor negates need for RGB filters 

Requires separate power source 

Low resolution images 

Heavy for its size 

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

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ZWO Optical ASI533 Pro

This camera’s design and build is very specifically geared towards clean astro shooting, as complemented by its zero amp glow

Type: Color CMOS astronomy camera | Sensor: 9MP, 1-inch | Lens mount: Scope mounted | ISO range: N/A | Viewfinder size/resolution: N/A | Video capability: 3008 x 3008, 20FPS | Weight: 800g | Size: 78mm | Memory card type: N/A

Zero amp glow 

80% quantum efficiency 

High 20FPS frame rate 

No mono version 

Square CMOS sensor unusual for some 

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.

Conclusion

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. 

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