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Introduction to Deep Space Cameras

Dedicated astronomy cameras used to be out of the price reach for many beginners, but many models can now be found for under the $1000 mark. Perhaps you’re ready to dive into the amazing hobby of deep sky astrophotography for the first time, or you’re graduating from using a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Whatever the reason, you’ve come to the right place to learn about deep space cameras. Need help putting together your first astrophotography rig as a whole? Check out our helpful beginner astrophotography gear guide.

With deep sky imaging, it's all about maximizing how much light you can gather and how clean the final image is. DSLR and Mirrorless cameras are familiar and user-friendly for beginners, but even the most entry-level dedicated astronomy cameras will run circles around most DSLRs. Unlike DSLRs, dedicated astronomy cameras feature cooling systems that prevent the sensor from heating up over long exposures. This in turn drastically reduces the amount of noise, which results in a much cleaner final image. Dedicated astronomy cameras are also much more sensitive over the entire spectrum of light, which is critical for capturing hydrogen alpha gas in most nebulae. DSLRs & Mirrorless cameras have filters built in that cut this signal out because it causes unnatural colors for traditional daytime photography. Watch our video comparing DSLR/Mirrorless Cameras vs. Dedicated Astronomy Cameras here, or check out this chart comparing the pros & cons of the two:

DSLR & Mirrorless Cameras Dedicated Astronomy Cameras
🚫 Limited sensitivity to most nebulae ✅ Sensitive to the entire spectrum
🚫 A lot of noise with long exposures ✅ Little noise with long exposures
🚫 Poor compatibility with filters ✅ Compatible with light pollution filters
🚫 T-ring required to connect to telescope ✅ Connects to telescopes easily
✅ Has built-in screen 🚫 Requires laptop, mini PC, or smart telescope control unit to view images
✅ Battery is built in 🚫 Needs an external power supply
✅ Can be used during the daytime 🚫 Not ideal for daytime photography


The first step to choosing a deep space camera is deciding whether you want a color or monochrome camera. Check out our video explaining the pros and cons between the two here. For beginners, we always recommend a one-shot-color (OSC) dedicated astronomy camera, as they're less complicated than monochrome dedicated astronomy cameras. So, which specific color camera should you buy for deep sky imaging? We’re glad you asked. Check out our expert recommendations for the best beginner deep sky imaging cameras here.

Still need more help understanding what all of the camera technical jargon means? Head to the Glossary section below to learn about terms like quantum efficiency, bit depth, and other camera specifications to help you make a decision on which camera is best for you.

One Shot Color Deep Space Cameras

Monochrome Astronomy Camera

Best for beginners and those who want a minimal, user-friendly setup

One-shot-color deep space cameras, often just abbreviated as OSC cameras, are the perfect choice for the beginner looking to get serious about deep sky astrophotography. OSC cameras are extremely easy to use and produce excellent images out of the box. Unlike monochrome cameras, OSC cameras will give a color image without the need for extra filters or filter wheels. They often come with almost everything you need to get started, including telescope adapters and a USB cable, but you may need to purchase a power supply cable separately. ZWO and QHY are two of the largest producers of color cameras, with both manufacturers often using the same sensors in their cameras.

Explore One Shot Color Deep Space Cameras

Monochrome Deep Space Cameras

Monochrome Astronomy Camera

Best for experienced astrophotographers set on maximizing detail

Monochrome cameras provide the highest level of image quality and clarity possible. Monochrome astronomy cameras capture significantly more data than their color counterparts, but require filters and a filter wheel to produce full color images. This leads to a dramatically higher price tag compared to color cameras. They also require more image processing time. For this reason, we usually recommend them for intermediate to advanced imagers, or anyone using cameras for scientific or research purposes. Overall, these cameras are great for anyone looking to capture the highest possible resolution images of the night sky.

Explore Monochrome Deep Space Cameras

FAQs

Still have questions? We have answers.

Which camera is best for deep sky astrophotography?

The short answer: any of the latest dedicated 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 dedicated 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. You can watch this video for an in-depth explanation, 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 deep space camera to my telescope?

Most often, many deep space cameras (like ZWO) come with the necessary adapters to attach to your telescope with either an M42 thread, and M48 thread, or an M54 thread, which are some of the most common connection sizes for telescopes. Be sure to double check what thread size your telescope or telescope accessory has, and make sure the adapters that come with your camera can fit. 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. Dedicated astronomy cameras are also more sensitive to the entire spectrum of light, allowing you to capture more light on certain targets like hydrogen alpha nebulae. 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.