The focus of this article is to sort out the major classes of astrophotography cameras for those who are brand new to this pastime. Astrophotography is a nice component to amateur astronomy but can be difficult for the beginner due to the extensive variety of equipment involved. We hope to at least get you familiar with the main categories of cameras used for astrophotography.
Main Article Sections:
- Astrophotography Webcams
- High-End Planetary Cameras
- Astrophotography DSLR’s
- Dedicated Astrophotography CCD’s
Camera Type I: Astrophotography Webcams
Ideal Targets: Planets & Moon
This first category of astrophotography cameras is one of the most popular ways to get started. This is due to the low cost of suitable webcams and the short learning curve to obtaining nice results! Furthermore, telescope tracking need not be as precise for this type of imaging as compared to deep space imaging. The cost of a new webcam will typically run less than $100.
Astrophotography webcams are best suited to imaging the planets through high focal length telescopes such as an f/10 SCT. Then Barlow lenses are added to reach f/20, f/30, or even f/40.
Astrophotography with a webcam utilizes a very unique method for capturing and processing images. Instead of taking individual photos, you actually take a “video” and use special software to filter out the bad frames. Once the undesirable frames have been removed, then the good quality frames are stacked into a detailed composite image of the planet. For more information on planetary imaging with a webcam, see Ray Shore’s Webcam Astrophotography Tutorial for Planets.
Here is a selection of the most popular types:
Most notable about the NexImage is the imaging sensor. It uses the exact same CCD sensor as the discontinued Philips ToUcam Pro 740k, 840k, and SPC900NC (i.e. Sony ICX098BQ) which were probably the most popular planetary webcams in the past years. A nice aspect of the NexImage is that it comes with the telescope adapter (which had to be purchased separately with the Philips webcams) and software for processing the videos into a composite image.
Packaged with the NexImage is the capture software and the very popular Registax software for processing the videos into a final detailed composite image.
Another popular astrophotography camera is the Meade LPI. It is mostly used as a planetary webcam but has also become a popular camera for auto-guiding due to its 15-second exposure length and low cost. Unlike the Philips webcams and Celestron NexImage, the Meade LPI contains a CMOS sensor rather than CCD. Many imagers maintain that CCD webcams produce sharper results. However, the appeal of the CMOS LPI is perhaps in it’s ability to serve as a very low cost auto-guider for deep space photography. Thus, it’s not surprising that astro-imagers probably have one of each type of camera at their disposal for handling different tasks!
Camera Type II: High End Planetary Cameras
Ideal Targets: Planets & the Moon
These types of astrophotography cameras allow for high frame rates without data compression through a firewire connection rather than the slower USB connection of normal webcams. The benefit is higher frame rate AVI videos with no loss or compression to the data. The output is highly detailed planetary images.
This capability adds a premium to the price of achieving high quality shots of the planets. Plus it requires a computer with a firewire port which are not as common as USB ports (although a firewire expansion card can likely be added). But if a camera of this caliber is within your budget and computer capabilty, it may be worth considering.
Camera Type III: Astrophotography DSLR’s
Ideal Targets: Moon, Sun, Comets, Nebula, Star Clusters, Galaxies
When it comes to deep space astrophotography, many imagers are turning toward digital SLR cameras. There are a couple of main benefits for using this type of camera for astrophotography. First, DSLR’s are a multi-purpose camera. That is, they can be used for ordinary terrestrial photography as well as astrophotography. So by day, you can use your DSLR for taking family photos or majestic scenes in Colorado and by night you can obtain crazy shots of the Andromeda Galaxy! The multi-purpose aspect of a DSLR can make it easier to justify the need! Also, DSLR’s are a low-cost solution to deep space imaging as compared to dedicated CCD’s.
The main shortcoming of using DSLR’s for deep space imaging is the limitation on exposure length. DSLR’s have no method of active cooling so electronic noise tends to become a factor for long exposure imaging. Luckily, much of this can be eliminated by stacking several short exposure’s together thereby increasing the signal-to-noise ratio (i.e., more signal, less noise). But to go really deep, then a more expensive dedicated CCD would be the camera of choice. See Camera Type IV: Dedicated Astrophotography CCD’s.
A few popular DSLR’s for astrophotography include:
Canon Models- 5d, 10D, 20D, 20DA, 40D, 50D, 300D, 350D, 450D, 1000D
Nikon Models- D2x, D3, D40, D40x, D70, D80, D90, D200, D300
Note that some of these models may be discontinued. Click here to see the available DSLR’s in AstroPhotography Tonight’s store.
Here are a couple of awesome resources regarding DSLR astrophotography:
Camera Type IV: Dedicated Astrophotography CCD’s
Ideal Targets: Comets, Nebula, Star Clusters, Galaxies
This line of astrophotography cameras represents the flagship of all the astronomical imaging devices! Most of these cameras incorporate a cooling mechanism, can handle long exposures, peer deep into space, and can carry a pretty hefty price tag! Luckily the prices of dedicated CCD cameras have improved over the last few years so a select few models are within the reach of more imagers.
Most dedicated astrophotography cameras use a CCD chip (rather than CMOS) and contain some special form of CCD chip cooling such as Peltier cooling or thermoelectric cooling. Long exposure astrophotography can cause the CCD chip to heat up thus causing electronic noise in the final image. Dedicated CCD’s counteract this effect by keeping the CCD chip as cool as possible during long exposures in effort to produce high quality photos.
Popular dedicated astrophotography camera brands include:
Santa Barbara Instrument Group (SBIG): large line of CCD cameras including low-end auto-guiders to serious high-end instruments with dual sensor self guiding systems.
This concludes our introduction to the various types of astrophotography cameras. Should you have further questions regarding the camera that is right for you, feel free to leave a comment below (requires registration for SPAM control) or send us an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.