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Introduction to Astronomy Cameras

Like with most astronomy equipment, there is no "one size fits all" camera that is best at everything. If you're hoping to image deep space objects, a cooled astronomy camera is the way to go. If you're hoping to image the planets, the moon, the sun, or other objects in the solar system, a high frame rate camera will do wonders for you. Understanding the difference between these different camera types and their specifications will help you decide on your next astronomy camera.

For deep sky imaging, it's all about maximizing how much light you can gather and how clean the image is. When imaging deep sky objects, it's best to use a cooled camera, which can prevent noise over long exposures. Cameras with higher quantum efficiency, larger pixel sizes, higher full well capacity, and lower read noise, among other specs, will produce cleaner images. Click here to see our recommendations for the best beginner deep sky imaging cameras.

For planetary imaging, it's all about maximizing the amount of detail in planets and other solar system objects, which are usually incredibly small. The planets are so small that not only do they require a long focal length telescope, but turbulence in the atmosphere can actually have a large effect on how detailed the image is. For planetary imaging, a small sensor, high frame rate camera is your best friend. Click here to see our recommendations for the best planetary, lunar, and solar cameras.

We know that the technical jargon and specifications can be a bit overwhelming for a beginner, so we've defined astronomy camera specs in layman's terms in the Glossary section at the bottom of this page. Once you're ready, read on to learn more about the different astronomy cameras available.

Deep Space Cameras

Best for imaging deep sky objects like galaxies and nebulae

Capturing breathtaking photos of the night sky is more accessible now than ever. Deep space cameras have become so affordable that what once costed a fortune just a decade ago now costs as little as a thousand dollars or less today. These deep space cameras are highly sensitive to light, which allows them to photograph ultra-dim objects like distant galaxies and nebulae. Additionally, deep space cameras employ cooling to help keep the sensor cool during long exposures which keeps noise levels low, leading to a much cleaner final image. When paired with the right filter or filters, you can even capture images like the one above from heavily light-polluted areas or even your own backyard.

Explore Deep Space Cameras

Planetary Cameras

Best for solar system objects like the planets, moon, and sun and autoguiding

When imaging the planets and other objects in the solar system, the biggest nemesis is our very own atmosphere. Due to atmospheric distortions occurring many times per second, single images of planets often appear blurry. To get around this, planetary astrophotographers use a technique called "lucky imaging" — which is taking hundreds or even thousands of images in quick succession many times per second. Then, computer software can sift through these images and automatically pick out only the frames when the atmosphere was still, leading to an overall sharper image. Most planetary cameras can also double as guide cameras, though monochrome cameras will be more ideal than color for guiding. With our wide selection of high frame rate planetary cameras, you too can capture incredible images of Jupiter and its moons, the rings of Saturn, the Sun, the Moon, and other objects within the solar system.

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Guide Cameras

Best for autoguiding and some planetary imaging

Guide cameras are essential for ensuring sharp, round stars in long exposure images of deep space objects. Over the course of long exposures, small errors in polar alignment or inherent issues with the mount can cause the stars to drift and appear as star trails. Separate from the main imaging camera, guide cameras are very effective at preventing these star trails by alerting your mount if it starts to drift off course. The mount can then make corrective adjustments to stay on track. By using guiding, you can get double, triple, or even longer exposure lengths compared to without guiding. Though not required to get started, almost all serious deep space astrophotographers will eventually want to incorporate a guide camera and guide scope/off-axis guider into their setup for better images. As an added bonus, most guide cameras can double as great planetary imaging cameras.

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Specialized Cameras

Best for more accurate polar alignment, star alignment, or all-sky imaging

Specialized cameras have a variety of applications, including assisting with polar alignment, star alignment, taking all sky images, and more. Polar alignment cameras can help ensure a precise polar alignment, leading to longer exposure images without star trails. Star alignment cameras can teach your telescope exactly where it's pointed in the sky, so you don't have to manually find faint objects yourself. All sky cameras utilize ultra-wide angle and fisheye lenses to capture the entire sky at once, which can be useful for capturing meteors or monitoring the weather at a remote observatory.

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FAQs

Still have questions? We have answers.

Which camera is best for deep sky astrophotography?

The short answer: any of the latest cooled astronomy cameras are going to perform very well for deep sky astrophotography, but the right camera depends on what you’re trying to image, your budget, and what equipment you may already own.

The long answer: finding the right cooled astronomy camera for your setup will depend on a few different factors. These factors include:

- Whether you plan to image in color (beginner) or monochrome (advanced)
- What size image circle your telescope/corrector can cover, which will determine the largest sensor diagonal you can use
- What your pixel scale will be at your telescope’s focal length
- What your budget is

If you need help figuring out the answers to the above, our Sales team is always ready to assist you and recommend the right camera for your setup and needs. Click Here to Contact Us.

Which camera is better for deep sky imaging, a color or monochrome camera?

From a purely technical standpoint, monochrome cameras are inherently better than color cameras due to their sensor design. We'll save the "why" for a future blog post, but monochrome cameras produce a cleaner and slightly sharper image than color cameras can. However, monochrome cameras are more expensive, and they require a filter wheel/drawer plus costly filters to produce a color image.

Color cameras, on the other hand, can produce color images right out of the box. Although monochrome cameras still have the upper edge, color camera technology and astronomy filters have gotten so good in recent years that it can be difficult to tell the difference between two images made from each camera type.

If you're just beginning astrophotography, we recommend starting off with a color camera. If you're already an experienced astrophotographer, consider upgrading to a monochrome CMOS or CCD camera.

How do I attach a camera to my telescope?

This depends on which kind of camera you're using. Here are a few of the most common cameras and ways to attach them:

- Smartphone: smartphone adapter to attach to an eyepiece
- DSLR/Mirrorless with APS-C/smaller sensor: T-Ring for your camera make
- DSLR/Mirrorless with Full Frame sensor: wide/M48 T-ring for your camera make
- Most Astronomy Cameras: Usually attach via included adapters
- Mini Planetary Cameras: Usually slide in to 1.25" ports

If you still need assistance figuring out how to attach your camera, we're here to help! 

Which is better for deep sky astrophotography, a DSLR or Dedicated Astronomy Camera?

Dedicated astronomy cameras with cooling will be able to outperform DSLR/Mirrorless cameras because they can keep the sensor cool over long exposures, which is critical for keeping noise levels low. This helps capture those extremely faint details that make deep sky images really come to life. However, unlike DSLR/Mirrorless cameras, dedicated astronomy cameras do not have a screen or a built-in battery, meaning you need a computer of some kind and a power source to take images.

What's the difference between CMOS and CCD cameras?

Although CMOS and CCD sensor cameras are quite different, they also share a lot of similarities. For one, they're both digital camera sensors, and both can produce fantastic images for astrophotography. While CCDs used to reign supreme in astrophotography in years past and still hold a slight edge, CMOS cameras have been catching up rapidly. To most amateurs, though, it can be hard to tell a difference between images when compared side by side. The bottom line is this: if you're doing planetary imaging or deep sky imaging for your own enjoyment, most astrophotographers go with a CMOS camera. If you're using the camera to take scientific measurements for an institution, you may want to consider a CCD camera.

Glossary

The Need-To-Know Specs:

Sensor
The make and model of the actual sensor inside the camera.

Resolution
Image resolution is size of the resulting images produced from the camera, usually measured in megapixels (millions of pixels), e.g. 16 megapixels. It is also sometimes measured in width x height of the total pixels, e.g. 4944 x 3284.

Sensor Size
The sensor size is the physical dimensions (in millimeters) of the sensor’s effective image area. The larger a sensor is, the wider the field of view it has, and vice versa — a smaller sensor will have a narrower field of view. This figure is sometimes expressed as full frame (approximately 36x24mm), APS-C/crop sensor (approximately 24x16mm), Micro 4/3 (approximately 18x12mm), and other common consumer camera sensor sizes.

Sensor Diagonal
The sensor diagonal is the physical measurement of how many millimeters are between the opposite corners of a sensor. When choosing a camera for deep sky astrophotography, it is important to know what the image circle of your telescope or additional optics like a reducer/flattener. Make sure the sensor diagonal is smaller than your image circle. If you don’t, it will likely result in elongated stars towards the corners of the image and possibly vignetting.

Pixel Size
Pixel size is the physical size of the pixels, measured in microns (µ). For deep sky astrophotography, larger pixels (like 5µ or higher) are usually better as they gather more light per pixel, but this comes at the tradeoff of lower resolution. For planetary imaging, a smaller pixel size is usually better, but it can depend on the telescope used.

Back Focus Distance
The back focus distance specification on a camera is the distance (in millimeters) from the sensor to the threads where the camera attaches to the imaging train. When using corrective optics such as a reducer, field flattener, reducer/flattener, or coma corrector, back focus spacing is essential to keeping the focal plane flat and ensure round stars throughout the image. First, find out the distance of back focus that your corrective optics require (e.g. 55mm), and then subtract the camera’s back focus distance (e.g. 17.5mm) from that to figure out how much spacing you need (e.g. 37.5mm).

 

The Nerdy Specs

Quantum Efficiency (QE)
Quantum efficiency is how overall efficient a sensor is at converting the incoming light into a signal/image that you can see. The higher the QE percentage, the better it is for low light and deep sky astrophotography. This number does not matter quite as much for planetary imaging.

Full Well Capacity
Full well capacity is how much light/charge each pixel can absorb (measured in electrons) before becoming purely white and unable to record more detail. The higher the full well capacity, the better. A higher full well capacity means that you can expose for longer before losing detail, and as a result, higher full well capacity cameras will have better dynamic range.

Read Noise
Read noise is a common type of noise, measured in electrons per pixel, that is generated during the process of converting the signal from analog to digital in the camera’s electronics. The lower the read noise, the better. Read noise occurs independently of the incoming signal, and therefore can occur in images taken even with the dust cover on.

Capture Speed
An important specification for planetary imaging, capture speed is how many frames per second a camera can capture. For deep sky astrophotography, this specification is not very important as exposures are usually many seconds or minutes long. For short exposure planetary imaging, the higher the number, the better.

Sensor Illumination
Sensor illumination differentiates whether a sensor is front-side or back-side illuminated. Generally speaking, back-side illuminated (BSI) sensors are better as they have a higher quantum efficiency.

Bit Depth
Bit Depth is the range of luminance values that each pixel can record. A camera with a higher bit depth per pixel, like 14-bit, will be able to produce smoother gradations between areas of varying brightness in an image. A lower bit depth camera, like 10-bit, may suffer from banding, or noticeable lines on parts of the image with gradients. The higher the bit depth, the better.

Cooling Temperature
Cooling temperature is how much cooler (measured in Cº) the camera can get than ambient air temperature running the cooling fan to keep the sensor cool. The lower the temperature below ambient, the better.

Color Filter Pattern
In color sensor cameras, the color filter pattern is the order in which red, green, and blue pixels repeat after one another to produce a color image. Nearly all consumer and astronomy cameras use the Bayer Filter, which repeats in a Red, Green, Green, Blue (RGGB) pixel pattern.

Shutter Type
Shutter type has two definitions. 1. In astronomy, particularly in CCD cameras, it can differentiate electronic shutters from mechanical shutters. For almost all imaging purposes except some CCD imaging, an electronic shutter is preferred. 2. It can also differentiate whether a camera has a rolling shutter, where the image is read out one line of pixels at a time, or a global shutter, where the image is read out all at once. For all deep sky imaging purposes, a global shutter is not needed.