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Introduction to Telescope Cameras

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

Telescope Cameras for Deep Sky Viewing

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 the addition of unwanted noise due to the heat generated during long exposures. Cameras with higher quantum efficiency, larger pixel sizes, higher full well capacity, and lower read noise, among other specs, will also produce cleaner images with fewer imaging artifacts. Read our recommendations for the best beginner deep sky imaging cameras.

Planetary Telescope 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 in your image. The planets are so small and so far away that not only do they require a long focal length telescope, but unavoidable turbulence in our 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. The short exposures used in planetary imaging mean there's no need for expensive on-camera cooling. As a result, planetary telescope cameras tend to cost less than their deep sky siblings. See our recommendations for the best planetary, lunar, and solar cameras.

What Does All This Mean?

We know that the technical jargon and detailed specifications can be a bit overwhelming for a beginner, so we've defined astrophotography camera specs in layman's terms in the Telescope Camera Glossary at the bottom of this page.

Once you're ready, read on to learn more about the different telescope cameras for sale at OPT.


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 with filters (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 helpful telescope camera experts are always ready to assist you and recommend the right camera for your setup and needs. Contact us for personalized help in choosing the right telescope camera.

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. To put it simply, monochrome cameras produce a cleaner and slightly sharper image than color cameras can. The reason for this is that every pixel in a monochrome telescope camera is dedicated to collecting all light data, no matter its color, whereas color cameras require a composite of red, green and blue sensors to create a color image in a single shot. On the other hand, in order to create a color image with a monochrome camera you must add a filter wheel/drawer along with costly filters to produce a composite color image from multiple exposures. Not surprisingly, this is more difficult and time consuming than using a color camera to capture all colors in a single shot.

Color cameras produce color images right out of the box. Although monochrome cameras still have the upper edge when it comes to image clarity, color telescope camera technology and astronomy filters have gotten so good in recent years that it can be difficult to tell the difference between images made from either 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 telescope 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 the telescope eyepiece
  • DSLR/Mirrorless with APS-C/smaller sensor: T-Ring for your camera brand/make
  • DSLR/Mirrorless with Full Frame sensor: wide/M48 T-ring for your camera brand/make
  • Most Telescope 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 to your telescope, we're here to help! 

Which is better for deep sky astrophotography, a regular DSLR/mirrorless camera or a dedicated astronomy camera?

Dedicated astronomy cameras with onboard 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 capture images.

What's the difference between CMOS and CCD telescope 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 CCD-based cameras used to reign supreme in astrophotography, (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.


The Need-To-Know Specs:

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

Image resolution is the amount of individual pixels that make up 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, or darkening of the edges of your images.

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 typically 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. Not surprisingly, a larger sensor size can result in larger pixels while still keeping resolution high.

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. To find your final back focus distance, 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. Front side illuminated sensors have wires running between pixels, reducing the amount of light that can be gathered. By moving these wires to the back of the sensor, more area is available to collect light.

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 while 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, but the global shutter can produce better results when planetary imaging.