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Introduction to Planetary Cameras

If you're just beginning planetary imaging, we strongly recommend you read our blog post titled Planetary Imaging for Beginners (with Gear Guide) first before deciding on a camera. There, you'll find everything you need to know to get started with planetary imaging. We cover concepts like astronomical seeing, lucky imaging, and even recommend which types of telescopes, mounts, and accessories are best for planetary imaging.

Planetary cameras might have specifications you're not expecting when it comes to photography. Many of these small sensor cameras have a sensor not much larger than in your smartphone, and may only capture 1-2 megapixels of resolution. You might be wondering: "Even my phone has a lot more resolution than that! How is 1-2 megapixels going to be good?" The reason is that in planetary imaging, the key is capturing video at hundreds of frames per second. The lower the resolution, the faster the frame rate the camera can capture. This is necessary for freezing specific moments when the atmosphere is still and the planets are the most detailed, otherwise known as lucky imaging. Therefore, a high frame rate is one of the most important specifications to look for when shopping for a planetary camera. Having some resolution is nice, but 1-2 megapixels can often get the job done for imaging most planets.

Another major decision to make when shopping for a planetary camera is whether you want a color or monochrome camera. Both have their advantages, but for most users, we recommend going with a color camera. Color cameras are easier to use than mono cameras, and don't require costly filters and a filter wheel. Thanks to recent advancements in sensor technology, color cameras can actually closely match the performance of monochrome cameras for planetary imaging.

Color Planetary Cameras

ZWO ASI462MC Planetary Imaging Camera

Best for almost all planetary imaging applications

Color planetary cameras are an excellent choice for beginners and advanced planetary imagers alike. Unlike monochrome cameras, color cameras don't require a costly filter wheel and filter set to produce a color image. Previously, monochrome planetary cameras could outperform color ones with more resolution. While that may have been true a few years ago, changes to interpolation algorithms and sensors have allowed color planetary cameras to essentially match their monochrome counterparts. Another reason monochrome had an edge over color was that it could image into the near infrared part of the spectrum, which was very useful for penetrating Jupiter's atmosphere for some imaging purposes. Cameras like the new ZWO ASI462MC, a color camera, have the increased sensitivity in the near IR range for this purpose. For the reasons above, we recommend most astrophotographers, especially beginners, go with a color planetary camera for planetary imaging.

Explore Color Planetary Cameras

Monochrome Planetary Cameras

ZWO ASI174MM Planetary Imaging Camera

Best for imaging in the near infrared, autoguiding, & research

Monochrome planetary cameras are a great choice for the planetary imager requiring the most precision and versatility. Although they require a filter wheel and filters to create a color image, monochrome cameras can provide the most control vs. a color camera. You can create a color image using standard RGB filters, but using filters like an IR pass filter like the Astronomik Planet IR Pro 742 has significant advantages. Using IR Pass filters will allow you to capture some details in the near IR range that most color planetary cameras can't due to an IR cut window just in front of the sensor. Additionally, the effects of atmospheric seeing are greatly reduced in the IR part of the spectrum, meaning you can still image even in less-than-ideal conditions. Another strong use case for monochrome planetary cameras is that they can be used for both planetary imaging and autoguiding, since they have the extra sensitivity to pick up faint stars for guiding. Lastly, they're the choice of researchers for their increased sensitivity across the entire spectrum. 

Explore Monochrome Planetary Cameras


Still have questions? We have answers.

What's the difference between a planetary camera and a guide camera?

Even though you may see planetary and guide cameras using the same sensor, this doesn't necessarily mean they can be used interchangeably. Planetary cameras feature high frame rates necessary for capturing the planets in high detail. Because of this, most planetary cameras use a USB 3 connection to support this high data transfer. Guide cameras, on the other hand, usually only have a USB 2 connection and lower frame rates. In ZWO's camera ecosystem, guide cameras are differentiated by including "Mini" in their title. You can use some planetary cameras, especially monochrome ones, as a guide camera as well. However, you cannot use ZWO "Mini" guide cameras as planetary cameras well as they don't feature the USB 3 connection to support fast frame rates.

What's the best camera for planetary imaging?

This will depend on which telescope you're using, and what field of view you're hoping to get. Sensors on planetary cameras can vary in size quite a bit, so it's best to use a Field of View Calculator like the one offered by Astronomy Tools to preview your field of view with your telescope before purchasing. Generally speaking, cameras with fast frame rates and low read noise. Cameras like the ASI462MC, ASI224MCASI290MM, and ASI174MM are all excellent choices for a variety of applications.

What software is best for planetary imaging?

You'll need a few different software applications to capture, stack, and process (edit) your planetary images. Fortunately, a few of them are free!

For capturing planetary images, FireCapture is a popular choice.

Like deep sky images, planetary images are best when you stack them to reduce noise. Software like PIPP is designed for pre-processing planetary images before stacking by selecting the sharpest frames and cropping them.

Once you've finished in PIPP, you can bring the images into RegiStax or Autostakkert! for stacking.

Finally, you can actually process (edit) the image to your aesthetic liking in software like GIMP or Adobe Photoshop.

Do I need to install drivers to use a planetary camera?

Yes! Your planetary camera will not connect to any of the above software without the proper driver installed, so be sure to install it before heading out to image. For ZWO cameras, head to the ZWO software downloads page and download the ASI Cameras driver. For QHY cameras, head to the QHY software downloads page and download the All-In-One System Pack. You may also need to download ASCOM drivers for compatibility with some software.