best dslr for astrophotography

A DSLR is truly a jack of all trades. Not only can you use them for scenic shots, planetary, and long-exposure deep-sky astrophotography, you can also use them for normal daytime pictures of your family or nature or sports. You can also use them to shoot high-definition video with sound for these same daytime subjects! As the DSLR market matures, real bargains are now available in previous generation models that are still being manufactured. The Best Dslr For Astrophotography and Great astrophotography DSLR camera models can also still be found for sale used on Ebay, Cloudy Nights, Astromart and at reputable camera stores like B&H, Adorama and KEH.

This is not to say that DSLRs are the absolute best at planetary and deep-sky imaging, but they are pretty good. High-resolution planetary imaging is best done with a camera that can shoot hundreds of frames per second with small pixels and a computer system that can handle the bandwidth required for that many images. Long-exposure deep-sky imaging is best done with a cooled CMOS or CCD monocrhome camera which requires a filter wheel and various filters to record color, and a computer to run everything.

Note that while Canon cameras can be used for the “lucky” imaging required for high-resolution planetary imaging, as of the date of the writing of this article, Nikon cameras could not because their Live View video feed was too low resolution. Hopefully that will change in the future.

If you have been in the hobby of astronomy for some time, you may have an interest in one of these particular areas and want to specialize in it. If you do know, then get the kind of camera that is best for that particular type of astrophotography. If you don’t know, or want to try them all out as well has have a camera that you can use for normal daytime photography, then a DSLR camera would be a good choice.

No matter what kind of astrophotos you want to take, spend some time on the internet and with the popular astronomy magazines looking at the best astrophotography to see what kind of camera they were taken with. You will find that the same names keep coming up again and again, both in the photographers that excel in these realms, and also in the equipment that they use.

How Deep Do You Want to Get Into Astrophotography?

How much time to you want to devote to this hobby? If you just want to go out and take some snapshots in the twilight, then all you will need is an inexpensive DSC camera and tripod.

If you already have a telescope and all you want to do is hook up the camera you have now and shoot some pictures of the moon, all you’ll need is an adapter to connect your camera to the scope. You can even do this with your smart phone’s camera.

If you are really in love with the pictures you see in magazines of galaxies and nebulae, and you want to take these kinds of pictures, you are going to have to commit yourself to spending time and effort on the long learning curve. If you want to pursue excellence, you are going to have to work at it and develop your expertise. You are also going to have to have the financial resources to buy equipment that is good enough to let you accomplish this goal.

A lot of it also depends on what kind of astrophotography you want to do. For example, high-resolution planetary imaging will require a very different scope and camera than long-exposure deep-sky.

Honestly though, if you haven’t even used a telescope yet but want to buy a camera and telescope to take astrophotos, I would strongly advise against just going out and buying them for the holidays. Find a local astronomy club and go out observing with them when they have a “star party” and look through a lot of different scopes and ask a lot of questions.

A lot of it will depend on how critical you want to be, and how deep into the hobby of astrophotography you want to get.

You might not be interested in being the absolute best in the world at whatever you decide to specialize in, or you might not want to specialize at all. You can still be happy and find it tremendously rewarding to just take pretty pictures and do it was well as you can do it.

For long-exposure deep-sky work, DSLR cameras offer an extremely attractive alternative to expensive dedicated cooled astronomical CCD cameras. They offer a much wider field of view at the same resolution, at a much more reasonable price. Their biggest advantage is that they can also be used for normal daytime photography, so you can tell your mate that you will also be able to take great family pictures with it!

The final choice as to which particular type of camera is best will depend on what specific type of object the astrophotographer is most interested in shooting, the degree of excellence he or she wants to pursue in their imaging, and the amount of cost and effort they are willing to put into it.

No matter what kind of camera is used, quite a bit of expertise, dedication and work is required to utilize them to their maximum potential.

All in all, the cost, convenience, utility and quality of DSLR cameras make them an excellent choice for most amateur astrophotographers.

How Much Do You Want to Spend?

Pick a budget and stick to it. Don’t forget to include money in your budget for things such as camera-to-telescope adapters. You’ll need a camera and adapter at least to get started. If you get into deep-sky astrophotography seriously, you’ll almost certainly also want focusing accessories, remote release timers, software, and possibly a laptop computer for use in the field. You can get by on a reasonably frugal budget to get started, but this is not a hobby like chess where you have virtually no expenses for the equipment needed for it.

Even with an unlimited budget, it still requires dedication and expertise to excel. Be prepared to invest your time in learning the craft of astrophotography.

Note that the older models that were manufactured before about 2004 were relatively high noise. Be careful about early generation cameras, such as the Canon 10D, which use USB1 which takes a really long time to download images. These cameras will also have higher thermal noise and worse amp glow. Check out this camera comparison list to see camera features and manufacture dates.

Best Dslr For Astrophotography

Recommended Beginner CamerasCanon T7i and Nikon D5600Recommended Inexpensive Beginner DSLRs for Astrophotography
Canon T7i (left) and Nikon D5600 (right)

Canon T7i (800D) body only ($700)

Nikon D5600 body only ($700)The Canon T7i and Nikon D5600 both have a tiltable LCD screen on the back, a feature that is really nice for astrophotographers when you need to focus with the camera or lens pointed overhead. Both are the latest generation of cameras by Canon and Nikon and will be great for beginner astrophotographers at a price that won’t break the bank.

Recommended Intermediate-Level CamerasNikon D7500 and Canon 77DRecommended Prosumer DSLRs for Astrophotography
Nikon D7500 (left) and Canon 77D (right)

Nikon D7500 body only ($1,250)

Canon 77D body only ($850)The Canon 77D and Nikon D7500 are both in the middle of Canon and Nikon’s technological tier, aimed at what they call “prosumers” – photographers who may be good enough to be professionals but are still consumers. Both have a tiltable LCD screen on the back, a feature that is really nice for astrophotographers when you need to focus with the camera or lens pointed overhead. Both are the latest generation of cameras by Canon and Nikon and will be great for intermediate photographers at reasonable prices.

Recommended High-End CamerasCanon 80D and Nikon D810aRecommended High-End DSLRs for Astrophotography
Canon 80D (left) and Nikon D810a (right)

Nikon D810a body only ($3,800)

Canon 80D body only ($1,100)The Canon 80D and Nikon D810a are both the latest generation of cameras with the best noise characteristics and will be great for advanced astrophotographers. Both of these cameras are what is called “ISO-less”. This means they have extremely low readout noise throughout their ISO range which gives them a very high dynamic range. For astrophotography, you don’t need to shoot any anything much higher than ISO 200 or ISO 400, even for faint objects.

Other Cameras Worth Considering

Canon 6D ($1,400) – The 6D is a full-frame body that has excellent noise characteristics. But you might want to wait because the 6D Mark II will probably be announced soon.

Canon 7D Mark II ($1,500) – The 7D Mark II is an APS-C sized sensor with very low thermal signal and low pattern noise.

Nikon D500 ($2,000) – The D500 is an APS-C sized sensor, also with very low noise.

For long-exposure, deep-sky astrophotography, the most important things to look for in a DSLR camera are low noise, high sensitivity and a good signal-to-noise ratio in the final output data.

Usability features, like live-view focusing, dust-reduction technology, and single-cable operation are also very attractive features to consider for astrophotography when choosing a camera.

In making your decision, you will have to choose between price, performance, and features. Older cameras usually are higher noise and many suffer from amp glow, a red glow in the corners and edges of a long exposure image caused by electronic amplifiers associated with the camera’s sensor. Canon and Nikon now turn these off during long exposures in their latest cameras

Newer cameras all have good signal-to-noise ratios and also have very attractive features like live-view focusing at magnification.

Cameras that are one generation removed from the latest and greatest most recently released ones are usually the sweet spot in terms of the price-performance ratio.

Astrophotography of Red Hydrogen-Emission Nebulae

For serious long-exposure deep-sky astrophotography, most of the latest generation of low-noise DSLR cameras are excellent for objects such as star clusters, blue reflection nebulae, and galaxies. The problem with stock cameras is that they almost all have a low-pass, long-wavelength filter that makes them poor at recording hydrogen-alpha light in red emission nebulae.

Luckily, for those astrophotographers who love emission nebulae, there are two solutions to this problem. One is the Canon 20Da which is specifically designed for astrophotography right out of the box. It has a modified filter that passes 69 percent of the hydrogen-alpha wavelength making it very good for emission nebula. It also offers a live focusing mode with 5x and 10x magnification. The Canon 20Da is also good for normal daytime photography.

The other solution is to replace the manufacturer’s long-wavelength filter in a stock camera. Several third party vendors offer this service, such as Hap Griffin, Gary Honis, and Andy Ellis in the UK. Other companies such as Maxmax and LifePixel also offer modified cameras for daytime infrared work, but with filters that should also work for astrophotography.

Note that it may be a bit harder to modify a Nikon with a replacement filter because the glass is a different thickness than the original and makes viewfinder and autofocusing inaccurate. Canon DSLR cameras are also much better supported in software and after market accessories such as in-camera filters. These are other reasons why I primarily recommend Canon cameras for astrophotography.

How to Buy a Digital Camera

1. Determine what you need

A mistake I see some digital camera buyers making is that they get sucked into buying cameras that are beyond what they really need. Some questions to ask yourself before you go shopping:

  • What do you need the camera for?
  • What type of photography will you be doing? (portraits, landscapes, macro, sports)
  • What conditions will you be largely photographing in? (indoors, outdoors, low light, bright light)
  • Will you largely stay in auto mode or do you want to learn the art of photography?
  • What experience level do you have with cameras?
  • What type of features are you looking for? (long zoom, image stabilization, large LCD display etc)
  • How important is size and portability to you?
  • What is your budget?

Ask yourself these questions before you go to buy a camera and you’ll be in a much better position to make a decision when you see what’s on offer. You’ll probably find the sales person asks you this question anyway – so to have thought about it before hand will help them help you get the right digital camera.https://da360a56a245c0803c5da779cd8113ff.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

2. Megapixels are NOT everything

One of the features that you’ll see used to sell digital cameras is how many megapixels a digital camera has.

When I first got into digital photography, a few years back, the megapixel rating of cameras was actually quite important as most cameras were at the lower end of today’s modern day range and even a 1 megapixel increase was significant.

These days, with most new cameras coming out with at least 5 megapixels, it isn’t so crucial. In fact at the upper end of the range it can actually be a disadvantage to have images that are so large that they take up enormous amounts of space on memory cards and computers.

One of the main questions to ask when it comes to megapixels is ‘Will you be printing shots’? If so – how large will you be going with them? If you’re only printing images at a normal size then anything over 4 or so megapixels will be fine. If you’re going to start blowing your images up you might want to pay the extra money for something at the upper end of what’s on offer today.

3. Keep in mind the ‘extras’

Digital-Camera-Accessories

Keep in mind as you look at cameras that the price quoted may not be the final outlay that you need to make as there are a variety of other extras that you might want (or need) to fork out for including:

  • Camera Case
  • Memory Cards
  • Spare Batteries/Recharger
  • Lenses (if you are getting a DSLR)
  • Filters (and other lens attachments)
  • Tripods/Monopods
  • External Flashes
  • Reflectors

Some retailers will bundle such extras with cameras or will at least give a discount when buying more than one item at once. Keep in mind though that what they offer in bundles might not meet you needs. For example it’s common to get a 16 or 32 megabyte memory card with cameras – however these days you’ll probably want something at least of 500 megabytes (if not a gigabyte or two).

4. Do you already own any potentially compatible gear?

Talking of extra gear – one way to save yourself some cash is if you have accessories from previous digital cameras that are compatible with your new one.

For example memory cards, batteries, lenses (remember that many film camera lenses are actually compatible with digital SLRs from the same manufacturers), flashes, filters etc.

5. DSLR or Point and Shoot?

Dslr-Point-And-ShootWhile digital SLRs are getting more affordable they are not for everyone. Keep in mind that they are usually bigger, heavier, harder to keep clean (if you’re changing lenses) and can be more complicated to operate than point and shoot. Of course there are some upsides also.

If you’re trying to make a decision between a point and shoot and DSLR you might want to read my previous posts titled Should you buy a DSLR or a Point and Shoot Digital Camera? and it’s companion piece How to Choose a DSLR.

6. Optical Zooms are King

Not all ‘zooms’ are created equal.

When you’re looking at different models of digital cameras you’ll often hear their zooms talked about in two ways. Firstly there’s the ‘optical zoom’ and then there’s the ‘digital zoom’.

I would highly recommend that you only take into consideration the ‘optical zoom’ when making a decision about which camera to buy. Digital zooms simply enlarge the pixels in your shot which does make your subject look bigger, but it also makes it look more pixelated and your picture ‘noisier’ (like when you go up close to your TV).

If you’re looking for a zoom lens make sure it’s an optical zoom (most modern cameras have them of at least 3x in length – ie they’ll make your subject three times as big – with an increasing array of ‘super zooms’ coming onto the market at up to 12x Optical Zoom).

7. Read reviews

Before buying a digital camera take the time to do a little research. Don’t JUST rely upon the advice of the helpful sales person (who may or may not know anything about cameras and who may or may not have sales incentives for the camera they are recommending).

Read some reviews in digital camera magazines or online to help you narrow down the field. There are some great websites around that give expert and user reviews on virtually every camera on the market – use this wonderful and free resource.

A little self promotion here – one such site is my Digital Photography Blog which is a site that collates the reviews of many sites from around the web. To use it best enter the camera’s model name that you’re looking for a review on in the search feature in the top right side bar. It’ll give you a link to a central page that has information on the camera as well as links to any reviews published online on that camera from around the web.

8. Hands On Experience

Photo by erinmariepage

Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a handful of cameras head into your local digital camera shop and ask to see and play with them. There’s nothing like having the camera in your hands to work out whether it suits your needs.

When I shop for a camera I generally use the web to find reviews, then I head into a street in my city with 4 camera shops side by side and I go from shop to shop asking for recommendations and seeing the cameras live in the flash. In doing this I generally find the same camera or two are recommended in most shops and I get to see them demonstrated by different people (this gives a more well rounded demo). I also get to play with it and get a feel for which one I could see myself using.https://da360a56a245c0803c5da779cd8113ff.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

9. Negotiate

After you’ve selected the right digital camera for you it’s time to find the best price.

Once again, I generally start online (on a site like our store) and do some searches to find the most competitive prices on the models I’m interested in. With these in hand I’m in a good position to be able to negotiate in person with local stores and/or with online stores. I generally find that retail stores will negotiate on price and will often throw in freebies. Online stores are more difficult – most bigger ones don’t give you the ability to negotiate but smaller ones often will if you email them.

Don’t forget to ask for free or discounted bonuses including camera cases, memory cards, extra batteries, filters, free prints, cases etc. I even know of a couple of stores that offer camera lessons that you can ask to be included. Some stores will also consider giving you a trade in on older gear.

I generally do negotiating from home on the phone and only go into a store to pick up the camera after a price is agreed upon.

Summary

There are several stock unmodified DSLR cameras made by Canon and Nikon that are excellent for daytime photography and nighttime astrophotography of galaxies, blue reflection nebulae, and star clusters.

For the best results for long-exposure astrophotography of red emission nebula, you will want a modified camera.

The quality of astrophoto images produced with the latest generation of DSLR cameras is now more dependent on the expertise of the photographer using them than by any limitations of the cameras

Leave a Comment