I have said it before in my all-in-one, how-to-do-everything astrophotography guide—astrophotography is more accessible than ever before. Great gear can be purchased even on a tight budget, and the advancements with compact star trackers allow for even greater detail to be captured.
First I must disclose that I have not been paid by any of the brands mentioned in the article to recommend one product over the next. These come from my experience, research, and testing, as well as a general consensus from the astro community.
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Pixel Scaling and ISO
Before I get started with my recommendations, it is important to note a few technical items which play into them. Chief among which is the ongoing debate between more megapixels and “less low-light capability” and fewer megapixels but “more low-light capability.” This topic is still debated on many internet forums today, but for the purposes of astrophotography (not video) resolution of a given sensor is not the only driving factor in noise. Read noise and quantum efficiency (QE for short, this means how much light the sensor is capable of converting into electrons, AKA signal) play a vital role, as does of course the optics you are using to gather that signal.
I want to keep this as brief as possible as the purpose of mentioning this here is solely for providing a foundation for my recommendations below. Yes, you can downscale a higher resolution sensor to represent the lower resolution sensor of the same sensor dimensions, and if all else is constant, the noise will be the same.
So you may ask then, why am I recommending the below cameras, why not just use the highest resolution sensor possible? There are a few problems with this. Higher resolution sensors require higher quality optics to fully utilize that extra resolution. Otherwise, the extra resolution may not be perceived, making it moot. Higher resolution files also require more processing power, hampering workflow.
The main issue is, if you are going to shoot and process with a higher resolution sensor and downscale to a lower resolution, what is the point of shooting with the higher resolution sensor, to begin with? Because higher resolution sensors require more work to ensure maximum efficiency, you would be better off saving your time and money and investing in a product that is already going to offer that level of noise ideal for astrophotography from the start.
With that out of the way, let’s move on to the actual recommendations.
Best Overall (and Nightscape) Astrophotography Camera: Nikon Z6 I/II
Nikon has received a lot of flack for their Z6 and Z7 series, in particular regarding the AF performance versus the rivals of Sony or Canon. The bodies are also now getting old and lack some of the features the latest and greatest the competition has. Look, I am not going to disagree with the fact that the AF is not quite as good as its competitors, but in astrophotography, AF is irrelevant. For all other reasons, the Z6 I or Nikon Z6 II excel as astro cameras in many genres from nightscape to deep space. The line has been my camera of choice for 3 years now going strong.
It has a 24-megapixel BSI full-frame sensor that, in my opinion, is excellent in read noise and quantitative efficiency, and it also has ISO invariance along with a dual-gain sensor.
The Z6 is also capable of adapting virtually any lens from any mount as it has one of the smallest flange distances, making it really easy to transition to from other systems. But, the mount truly shines with the new Nikkor S line lenses. I personally am blown away by some of the glass in the Z system. Coming from Canon L series lenses as well as Sigma ARTS (and also using Sony GMs), much of the Z system glass does a fantastic job at rendering beautiful star colors and shapes with minimal longitudinal chromatic aberration, coma, and astigmatism. Some are better than others for sure, but in my opinion, these are top tier, which is saying a lot considering older Nikon glass had some pretty bad distortions when it came to astro. I will not be going into lens recommendations in this article, however — just know there are some great options.
The Z6 I/II can also be easily astromodified for more response in the h-alpha wavelengths. Some bodies have issues with modification, but the Z6 does not. The Z6 is also compatible with a boatload of capture software for all of you deep spacers out there making it great for both nightscape and deep space alike, depending on your telescope/lens and target. The Z6 also does not have any sensor banding issues like some Canon sensors do, nor does it suffer from Star Eater spatial filtering like all Sony’s do (yes, Sony star eater is still persistent today, Stars are smeared out as exposure time increases, and many crowded star fields turn into weird snake/maze-like groupings). The only minor issue is some concentric ringing, but there is an easy fix for it (basically just use the histogram and expose to the left) and I also personally have never had this issue.
The Z6 I and II have the same sensor, but the Z6 I can be had for cheaper. I do not find the benefits of paying extra for the II necessary for astro, but if you plan to also shoot daytime work with the camera, you may find the better AF and second card slot of the II to be much more beneficial.
Best Budget Astrophotography Camera for Nightscape: Canon EOS 6D Mark I
DSLRs are not quite dead yet. In fact, I would argue that anyone looking to invest in a camera just for astrophotography should start off with a DSLR. In particular, when it comes to nightscape work, a full-frame camera would be great, but the mirrorless options are all expensive, even used. You would be better off saving the money by sticking to a cheaper DSLR and getting better glass up front. Fortunately, the current mirrorless offerings have made this camera particularly cheap — I am talking about the Canon EOS 6D Mark I.
The 6D is a full-frame camera with an extensive lens lineup that is hard to go wrong with. Even in 2022, this camera still shines. Despite a lack of ISO invariance and some sensor banding issues, the 20MP sensor has very low read noise. While there are some good Canon L series lenses out there that are great for astro work, I have seen better results from even cheaper 3rd party offerings such as the Sigma ARTs, Tamron, and Rokinon/Samyang glass which are all available for EF mount.
I have seen this camera dip below the $300 mark on used forums. You can also keep an eye open for the Nikon D610 which offers ISO invariance and access to the same 3rd party glass, but it is slightly more expensive sitting at around $500.
Best Astrophotography Camera for Deep Space: Multiple Choices
Choosing a deep-space camera is a whole other ballgame than nightscape. Deep space cameras need to be paired appropriately with the right Optical Tube Assembly (OTA) for appropriate sampling. If you are undersampling, it means the camera is not capturing the full resolution the telescope is able to provide. Oversampling occurs when light is spread over more pixels than required to reach the full resolution, which can result in much longer integration times than necessary. Sounds confusing? No worries, check out this online calculator which makes it easy to figure out.
Also, remember what I was saying above about how higher resolution sensors require better optics? This is a case for oversampling. There are also mono cameras and full-color cameras — those are discussed in depth in my astrophotography tutorial.
The bottom line is it would be inappropriate for me to recommend one camera over the other with so many factors at play. Instead, I am going to recommend a few of my choices as well as the community favorites which vary in price, sensor size, color, or mono which should hopefully make it easier for you to decide.
For Micro 4/3 chip sizes, I am going for the ZWO ASI294MC Pro for color, and the ZWO ASI1600MM Pro for Mono. Both have low read noise, cooling, and pair nicely with wider focal length telescopes to capture bigger targets. I have noticed some amp glow with the 294MC, but this is fixed easily by proper calibration frames.
For APS-C, the ZWO ASI2600 series (the ASI2600MC Pro color camera and ASI2600MM Pro mono camera) is hard to go wrong with. Both have very low read noise and high quantitative efficiency with the color sitting at 80% and the mono at an impressive 91%. Both are cooled of course.
Stepping up to full frame is very demanding for deep space. It requires you have an OTA which is capable of filling a full-frame image circle, and you are ensuring you are sampling properly. Both ZWO and QHY implement the 62MP Sony IMX455 sensor in their top of the deep space cameras, but the ZWO has more driver support and is slightly cheaper. The ZWO ASI6200MC Pro is the color camera while the ZWO ASI6200MM Pro is the mono variant of the chip.
Best Budget Astrophotography Camera for Deep Space: Nikon D5300 / Canon Rebel T3i
Fear not, deep space can still be done on a tight budget with more simplicity if these dedicated astro cameras are not for you yet! The Nikon D5300 and Canon Rebel T3i are hard to pass up. Spec and age-wise, you are probably questioning these cameras, but these DSLRs still rock! Both can be had with an astro mod already complete all for less than $300 and are widely compatible across the board with capture software and adapters for OTA hardware.
In deep space, accurate tracking is far more important than the camera itself, so you would be better off splurging on a good mount and saving some money on the camera if you are heavily budget restricted. These cameras will get great results and are fan favorites in the community with a ton of support. My first ever DSLR was a T3i and I can still vouch for how it got me into astrophotography in the first place.
Best Astrophotography Camera for Planetary and Solar/Lunar: ZWO ASI174MM
Planetary cameras shoot a lot differently than the deep space offerings mentioned above. They do not need cooling and large sensors. Instead, smaller sensors and high FPS are important specs. This is because these targets are imaged much differently than with deep space. Read my complete astrophotography guide for more info on how to do so.
Just like deep space cameras, there is a little bit of figuring out you need to do to match your camera with your OTA. You may also need to add in a Barlow (hardware that crops your field of view) to achieve the correct scaling.
Before we get started with my recommendations, however, I just need to note that ZWO just announced 3 new cameras at the time of writing. But, these cameras are not available to the masses yet and as a result, I have no way of knowing how capable they actually are. It would be wrong for me to recommend gear just based on specs alone without any use, so as a result this article is based on what is currently available. Down the road, these might be adjusted to reflect the new cameras, so stay tuned!
The ZWO ASI174 is a favorite in this field. It offers a 164 FPS capture speed, which is outstanding for planetary, solar, lunar, and even as an autoguider for deep space shooters. This is a fantastic all-around camera. But, it is a monochrome camera which may be a little tougher for beginner use. For that reason, I would also recommend the ZWO ASI385MC which has a slightly slower maximum capture rate of 120 FPS, but features a full-color sensor and is slightly cheaper. Take note however that sometimes capturing planetary data in color may be difficult due to atmospheric dispersion.
The ludicrously expensive and complicated barrier of entry into astrophotography is a thing of the past. The impressive capabilities of cameras today can be had for cheaper than ever before, and even older tech still does an excellent job for those looking to save a few bucks.
Software too has been improved so much that even using dedicated astro cameras does not require a degree in astronomy, and the variation of many different types of cameras is proof that you can shoot just about anything under the sun… or the stars… or even the sun itself. Ha!
About the author: Daniel J. Stein is a passionate nightscape photographer working full-time in New Jersey in his family’s commercial plumbing contracting business. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Stein’s work on his website and Instagram.
Image credits: Header photo from Depositphotos