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Best cameras for astrophotography

Best cameras for astrophotography: Image shows Milky Way behind durdle door in Dorset
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you’re in the market for one of the best cameras for astrophotography then look no further than our round-up. Here we’ve brought together the pinnacle of digital imaging tech to help photographers capture the universe in ever-clearer ways. However, a camera’s only as good as the glass that’s in front of it, so check out our roundup on the best lenses for astrophotography for a decent pairing. Also, our guide on the best zoom lenses highlights some of the best options on the market for those that need a little extra leeway when it comes to composition.

DSLRs and mirrorless cameras have long been known for their night sky shooting prowess. Low image noise and high ISO capabilities, plus their flexibility for regular day-time shooting make them ideal devices for many users. However, there’s also astro-specific cameras that regular photographers often overlook. These are specialized devices that mount to telescopes for incredibly clear astrophotographs that can easily surpass DSLR or mirrorless cameras, but are actually not suitable for regular photography.

There are a few more things to consider before jumping into a camera system and that’s how well that system handles image noise (ever-present in night time photography), blocks infrared light (limiting deep-sky photography), and the size (for portability).

Price isn’t everything and there are some cameras that cost far less but give superior image quality. However, there’s always a trade-off, whether it’s shooting flexibility, lens mount, or budget we’ve got something for everyone. Of course, you won’t be able to capture the stars without a tripod too, so be sure to check out our guide to the best tripods for astrophotography as well.

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

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

(Image credit: Walmart)

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

Specifications
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
Reasons to buy
+Huge stills resolution for extra detail +Native compatibility with F-mount lens range +Reliable and durable weather sealing 
Reasons to avoid
-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

Canon EOS Ra is the best camera for wide field astrophotography

(Image credit: Canon)

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

Specifications
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
Reasons to buy
+Large image sensor +Wide ISO sensitivity range +- 6 EV Autofocus 
Reasons to avoid
-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

Sony A7 III: Best for low noise astro shots

(Image credit: Amazon)

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

Specifications
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)
Reasons to buy
+Incredible low light video performance+Good battery life+93% AF point coverage 
Reasons to avoid
-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

Nikon Z6: Best all-rounder for mirrorless

(Image credit: Amazon)

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

Specifications
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
Reasons to buy
+Low image noise +Superb electronic viewfinder +Great low light Autofocus 
Reasons to avoid
-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

Canon EOS 6D Mk2: Best budget astro camera

(Image credit: Amazon)

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

Specifications
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
Reasons to buy
+4K timelapse feature +Handy vari-angle touchscreen display +A lot of camera for the money 
Reasons to avoid
-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

Best cameras for astrophotography: ZWO ASI183MC Pro

(Image credit: Amazon)

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

Specifications
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
Reasons to buy
+Electronic shutter minimises camera movement +19FPS perfect for solar/lunar photography +USB 3.0 output 
Reasons to avoid
-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

Best cameras for astrophotography: QHY 8L cooled CCD camera

(Image credit: agenaastro.com/)

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

Specifications
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
Reasons to buy
+Built-in cooling for better thermal dissipation +Low image noise +Color sensor negates need for RGB filters 
Reasons to avoid
-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

Best cameras for astrophotography: ZWO ASI1533MC Pro Camera

(Image credit: https://astronomy-imaging-camera.com)

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

Specifications
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
Reasons to buy
+Zero amp glow +80% quantum efficiency +High 20FPS frame rate 
Reasons to avoid
-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

There are a few key factors that come into play when choosing the best camera for astrophotography. Budget is obviously important, with new users who want to dabble perhaps setting aside a little less than more seasoned photographers that want the very best images. However, image clarity is also key, and you'll find that larger sensors with fewer pixels are able to capture astro shots with minimal image noise. By negating the effects of image noise we’re able to process imagery more efficiently with more detailed results.

Autofocus, while not that useful for astrophotography, may still be helpful for those that want to combine night-time shooting with near-twilight landscapes that show the brightest stars, planets, and satellites hanging above a beautiful foreground. So a low EV rating on the autofocus ability is crucial for sharp shots in the dark. Fiddling around with a dim-lit red head torch can make life a little frustrating at times so take into account whether you need backlit illuminated buttons to help guide camera setup.

Dedicated astro cameras tend to heat up easily during longer exposures. If this is likely to become a problem then look for a camera that has its own in-built cooling to keep the device performing well during long shoots. Beware that this often incurs additional cost, and devices are usually bigger and bulkier because of additional fans (which are also a little noisy depending on the model you opt for).

When not mounting onto a telescope photographers must consider lens choice when choosing a camera for astrophotography. While most major manufacturers have excellent ranges of top-quality glass, not all camera models can accept the full range of lenses due to differences in mount types. Ideally, fast lenses with wide apertures and excellent optical sharpness and clarity are what to look for when shooting astrophotographs so pair this with a camera body that handles high ISO and image noise well and you should be good to go.

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Jason Parnell-Brookes

Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer, educator and writer. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. Jason is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and works with many high profile international clients.