The Best DSLR Cameras for Astrophotography

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If you are looking to buy a new DSLR for Astrophotography, this article offers some recommended cameras and some of the features to look for in an astrophotography DSLR.

ANY relatively modern DSLR will work for astrophotography, and work pretty well.  So if you already have a DSLR and want to get started with AP, go ahead and use your existing camera. If you’re looking for a new camera, here are some aspects to think about, followed by some recommended models for different budgets.

DSLR Astrophotography Features 

Characteristics you should look for in a DSLR you want to use for Astrophotography.

Live View LCD

Best DSLRs for AstrophotographyHaving a live view makes it easy to center and focus on bright objects. A live view that also includes exposure compensation can also be handy in making sure your camera settings (ISO, shutter speed) are reasonably appropriate for bright targets like the Moon, Jupiter, and Saturn.

Variable-angle LCD

A rotatable LCD that you can orient independently from the camera can be very handy when centering a star and focusing. Otherwise as you image higher in the sky, you’ll be bending further and further down while craning your neck to view the screen. (Of course, I just bought a new camera that doesn’t have this feature, so apparently I need to start doing yoga.)

Low Thermal Sensitivity

Professional astronomical cameras are actively cooled down to temperatures well below freezing. This is because of the fact that as the temperature of a CMOS or CCD sensor increases, so does the thermal noise recorded by the sensor. Some sensors and cameras though are less susceptible to this thermal noise than others. Roger Clark has tested a number of Canon cameras over the years, and found the thermal sensitivity to be generally decreasing with the newer generation cameras. (The 7D Mark II exhibits the lowest thermal sensitivity of the cameras he has tested to date.)

Thermal noise is less of an issue in the winter, on cold nights. It can become a major issue on warm summer nights (this is one of the reasons I’m moving from the Canon Rebel T3i to the 7D Mark II).

Hydrogen-alpha Sensitivity

The CMOS sensors in DSLR cameras can actually capture a wider spectrum of light than the human eye can see, including down into the infra-red wavelengths. If the cameras were offered with bare sensors, the color balance in photos would be heavily shifted towards the red. To correct for this attribute of the CMOS sensors, manufacturers add a filter in front of the sensor that blocks this infrared light, then do processing on the captured images to correct for the white balance and other attributes. The result is a natural color picture like we see with our eyes.

Unfortunately, most of the light from nebulae in the universe is in the hydrogen-alpha wavelength, which is between the Infra-red and visible wavelengths, so the filters in most cameras block the majority of this light (80-90%) from reaching the sensor. Many astrophotographers choose to have their cameras modified to replace that filter with a less-restrictive one that allows more of the Ha light to reach the sensor. There are a handful of companies and individuals that offer this service for fees starting at about $300. The downsides of this modification are voiding any warranty on the camera, and no longer being able to use it for daytime photography without fairly extensive post-processing color corrections.

If you want enhanced Ha sensitivity but don’t want to have your camera modified there have been a few cameras offered by Canon and now Nikon that are designed with improved Ha sensitivity. Canon introduced the 60Da in 2012, which was a 60D with a different IR-cut filter which allowed more Ha light to pass to the sensor. Canon also previously offered a 20Da back in 2005. At this point, neither camera is available new. There was a recent rumor that Canon was working on a full-frame astrophotography camera, but they have not made any announcements. Nikon recently announced their new full-frame D810A, which includes several nice astro-specific features, and retails for about $3,800. At the moment, the Nikon is the only astro-specific DSLR for sale today.

Astrophotography Software Compatibility

Canon cameras have a clear advantage over the competition in terms of the software available for controlling them from a laptop for AP purposes. It’s worth noting that the software updates to support newer cameras often lag a bit behind the introduction of the cameras. At the same time though, one of the great things about a DSLR is you don’t need a laptop to use it for AP – just an intervalometer.

Other Considerations

Should you get an APS-C, Full-Frame, 4/3rds sensor?

Depends on your budget. Full Frame cameras are generally in a higher price bracket than APS-C cameras. I use APS-C cameras along with a focal reducer that narrows the imaging circle to bring more light onto the smaller sensor. APS-C is the size you find in more entry level and mid-range DSLRs.

What about Resolution and Pixel Size?

There seems to be an endless debate about whether it’s better to have larger pixels (to capture more photons per pixel) or higher resolution (to capture more spacial detail). Is it better to have a 12 MP APS-C camera, or a 24 MP APS-C camera? Frankly, I’m not sure. However, the choice is mostly being made for us by the ever increasing mega-pixel count in each new generation of DSLRs. As that pixel density increases though, for the most part, the sensors are also improving in terms of quantum efficiency, reduced noise, and increased dynamic range. This is a debate that will likely continue for a long time, with no clear resolution.

What Features Don’t matter?

Many of the features that differentiate higher-end DSLRs from their entry-level counterparts, like Advanced Auto-focus, multiple AF points, Bust Shooting fps, simply don’t matter for astrophotography. What you generally do get as you move up to the higher-end and pricier cameras is larger image sensors, improved build quality, and improved sensors.

Which Brand is Best – Canon, Nikon, Sony, other?

If you have a preference, go with it. If you already have a set of Nikon lenses, get a Nikon camera. If you have a friend that will let you borrow his Canon lenses, get a Canon. The general wisdom seems to be that Sony and Nikon cameras offer the better sensitivity and lower noise in their newer generation cameras. At the same time, Canon remains the dominant choice for APers in part due to the available compatible software (Windows and Mac) and community of support. I started out with a Canon, and after looking at the landscape in April and May 2015, don’t see a slam-dunk reason to switch.

Is one brand going to offer a significantly better photograph than another? Probably not. Much of it is about the lenses/telescopes, night sky conditions, and processing skill you bring to it. The differences would probably come into play with Ha Sensitivity and Thermal Noise, and for the most part, I haven’t seen any clear data points to say get the Nikon D5500 vs the Canon T6s or vis-versa. (If you want to see a comparative review, let me know. I’d like to do it, but I buy this stuff with my own money, so donations are appreciated!) The difference in Ha Sensitivity will be a factor if you consider the Astro-specific DSLRs. Of course, after-market modifications are also available.

What about Astronomical CCD Cameras?

Astronomical CCD cameras are a whole different world from DSLR cameras. These are cameras designed exclusively for AP, and most offer active cooling. The nature of a CCD vs a CMOS sensor in a DSLR results in a camera that is higher sensitivity, but also higher noise. Many Astro CCD cameras have mono sensors (no bayer color layer) which means they are used with filter wheels with different colored filters to capture a natural color image. They can also be used with various narrow-band filters to capture light outside the visible spectrum.

DSLR Advantages
  1. Easier to use – no computer required, no filter wheels.
  2. In-Camera processing reduces post-processing effort
  3. More Portable – again, no laptop needed.
  4. Preview and setup on the camera screen.
CCD Advantages
  1. Active cooling – reduces the noise from thermal interference.
  2. Higher sensitivity – typically 30-50% better, making cleaner, more detailed images possible.
  3. Mono sensor allows for capture of non-visible wavelengths through narrow band filters (Hydrogen-alpha, Sodium, Oxygen-2)
  4. Higher image noise – despite being actively cooled, CCD sensors are noisier than modern CMOS sensors.

 Wrapping Up

So what camera should you get? As far as I can tell, there is no one right answer. It depends on your preferences and on your budget. The table below includes my personal top picks based on my research, but is by no means extensive or all inclusive. Notably, I haven’t researched the Sony cameras in any detail, no other lesser known brands. If you look on the DSLR forums at Cloudy Nights, you’ll find most individuals using Canon and to a lesser extend Nikon cameras, which tends to lend a focus to those brands.

What do I own? I’ve used the Canon Rebel T3i for the past two years now, but have begun feeling it was time for an upgrade. I just recently purchased a Canon 7D Mark II and a Canon Rebel T6s, and hope to put all three cameras to some comparative astrophotography tests soon. Once the weather cooperates.

Recommended Cameras
Canon Rebel T3i (600D)  18 Megapixels APS-C ~$400-$500
  Canon’s entry level Rebel line is used by a large number of astrophotographers. (I’ve used this camera, with no modifications, for the past two years) They are discontinued now, but you can sometimes find refurbished units from Canon Direct or used on eBay. The Rebel T4i and Rebel T5i are newer versions with some improvements, and the T5i is still available new.
Buy Canon T3i on eBay
 Canon Rebel T6i/T6s  24 Megapixels  APS-C  $749/$849 (Body)
 img_product-3.php These are the new Rebels that have a brand new 24 mp sensor. At the time I’m writing this, they were still mostly on back-order. These are also called the Rebel 750D and 760D in other markets. Look for a review of the T6s here soon!
Canon Rebel T6i @ B&H | Canon Rebel T6s @ B&H
 Nikon D5500  24 Megapixels  APS-C  $750 (Body)
 img_product-4.php Introduced earlier this year, this looks like it should have the characteristics to be a good AP camera, and I was tempted to buy one, but opted for the 7D Mk II instead.
Shop on Amazon – Buy on B&H Photo Video

 Canon 6D  20 Megapixels Full-Frame  $1399 (Body)
 img_product-2.php If you want a full frame sensor, this is a good bargain right now. It’s a couple years old and there are rumors of a 6D Mark II within the next year, but this camera remains a good option.
Buy on B&H Photo Video | eBay
 Canon 7D Mark II  20 Megapixels  APS-C  $1499 (Body)
 img_product-1.php Roger Clark reviewed this camera recently and rated it very high for low thermal noise and possibly better than average Ha sensitivity. I just purchased one of these, so look for a review here in the future too.
Shop at AmazonBuy on B&H Photo Video | eBay
Nikon D810A  36 Megapixels Full-Frame  $3796 (Body)
 img_product.php Nikon’s first entry into the DSLR AP market. This is a full frame camera just introduced in early 2015. It includes some nice AP specific features like higher Ha sensitivity and taking exposures up to 15 minutes without a separate intervalometer.
An early review of this camera from an astro-imager is here.
Buy on B&H Photo Video

What Else Do You Need?

Memory cards obviously. I highly recommend extra batteries. These run down quickly on cold nights. And for most cameras, an Intervalometer is a necessity. Be sure to search for one that works with your model camera. For prime focus photography with a telescope in place of a camera lens, you also need a T-ring for your type of camera and a T-adapter. (Search for these items on B&H.)

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Share your thoughts

  1. I think the best way to do astrophotography is afocal method. All you need to do is to redesign DSLRs to mate with eyepieces . Some eyepieces are made to mate with Trings already.. The reason is .. eyepieces give you oomphs in magnification power.. or different FOVs.. to play around with. Prime method is limited..
    and inflexible!

    • It looks like Canon. My 600D has an LCD screen that does that – very handy when the camera is pointed upwards.

  2. Thanks for the review guys – this is a brilliant first point – easy to understand – yet detailed enough review! Just a technical question:

    The D3300 is (DXO)marked as a better ISO performer compared to the D3400. However, this may be due to measured ISO, i.e. D3400 starts with a measured ISO100 at 63 (SNR 42.3), while the D3300 measures ISO100 at 78 (SNR 42.2).

    This effect further magnifies with the measured ISO of D3400 falling behind even more dramatically at higher ISOs, while in the same pattern, maintaining better SNR at the “fallen behind” measured ISO levels, e.g.: D3400 ISO1600 measured at 1053 (SNR 30.6), while the D3300 measures ISO1600 at 1253 (SNR 30.4).

    Since I am relatively new to the world of AP, I really wanted to know what you read from the above, especially in light of the fact that the D3400 outperforms the D3300 in Dynamic Range and Colour Sensitivity, while following the same “aheadness” pattern as the SNR in Tonal Range (i.e. at the D3400’s ISO measured point, the D3400 would be ahead, but graphically falls below the D3300 at the point where the D3300 is measured).

    Thanks a lot in advance! I ask this as this seems to be a common pattern is a lot of camera comparisons – when it comes to a better performer at its own measured ISO points, while falling behind at the competitors measured ISO point of a given stated ISO).

    • FYI…you cannot control a Sony camera from your laptop for long exposures / multiple exposures as you can with a Canon and a program such as BackyardEOS for astrophotography with a telescope…

      • Depends on the camera model, but Sony does offer software for tethered shooting. Support for Sony cameras is still lacking from most Astro software.

    • I think you are over-analyzing, which DXOMark is great for. Any modern DSLR camera is going to be great for AP. Different cameras can have different ‘native iso’, or parity iso, and different noise characteristics at the same ISO setting. Just pick a camera, find the settings you like, and shoot away. 99% of the time, nobody would notice any difference.

    • Hi Bradley, either camera would work very well. They are different classes of cameras, the Nikon 750 is a full frame, and the Canon is an APS-C sensor, so there is a large price difference. Which to get really just depends on your preference and however else you plan to use the camera.

      • Hi Sorin
        Thanks for your reply. I am a novice but just read an article on full frame vs APS. I am on tight budget,,
        APS sounds like what I want. Do you suggest buying telephoto lens for APS as in the article it suggests APS has good telephoto as is. Other than astrophotography I plan to use the camera for
        everyday purposes ie: landscape and potrait

        • Depends on your goals with astrophotography and your overall budget. I’d suggest starting with the camera and kit lens, and build over time from there. Rather than investing in a telescope and mount, you can consider something like the iOptron SkyTracker Pro to start out with. I use a 70-200 lens on the Skytracker, and it works pretty well.

  3. I’m thinking of starting astrophotography, and i’m a bit delusional while choosing the DSLR. My budget is $700, after researching a lot i’ve shortlisted Nikon D5300, Sony a6000 and Canon T5i. I’m not able to decide, please help me in this regard.

    • Here’s where it gets tricky. You see, they are all good cameras. Really, the question is which platform (Canon, Sony, or Nikon) do you want to start investing in. This mainly has to do with lenses – they are not interchangeable. If you already had a Nikon lens, or have friends that have lenses, it would make sense to get the Nikon camera. Overall, Canon is the best supported in AP related software, with Nikon being second. The sensors in the Nikon and Sony are a little more sensitive than the Canon, but any of them will give you good images.

  4. Guys, I’m having two issues and I am not understanding something. I am using a T5i mounted on a 8″ SCT. I had LifePixel change out the filter with full spectrum glass to allow for Ha light. However, this weekend I couldn’t get anything on the Horsehead nebula even with 4 minute exposures. What am I doing wrong? Other Ha emission nebs are fine and Orion as well. I also noticed same issue with getting the Filament nebula. Also allowing for 4 minute exposures. For the record, I am imaging from a dark sky spot in east Georgia.
    One other point, when photographing Andromeda, I cannot get a clear picture. I always end up with a blob of light and no detail. I am assuming I could use an eyepiece with an extender but should I be lengthening the exposures or taking shorter? Help appreciated!

    • When you say you are getting nothing, are you getting all black frames, or are you getting surrounding stars and no perceivable nebula? The Horsehead is fairly dim compared to Orion, so even with a 4 min exposure, it may require some stretching to pull it out. I’d also suggest you double-check the ISO setting, I’d suggest about 1600 for the T5i. You don’t mention if you are using an autoguider, but for 4 minutes, I hope you are.

      Regarding Andromeda, the focal length of an 8″ SCT means you will be looking at the core, and won’t have the outer arms in the frame. This tends to look like a white blob. Remember that Andromeda with its spiral arms is over 2° across, but you have a field of view of less an 1/2°. If you look at images of the galaxy online, you’ll see that the core is generally a light blog in everything but the best professional images using higher end equipment, and that’s the region you are imaging. I bought a Stellarvue 80mm APO specifically to start imaging larger targets like Andromeda, which is deceptively hard to produce good images of even with the whole galaxy in the field of view.

      The right exposure length is different for different objects, and even within objects. Orion you can do quite short exposures of to get the core, but need longer exposures for the outer nebula. The same is true for Andromeda. Hope that helps.

    • I started out with a C8. An 8″ SCT has too much magnification and a tight field of view for those targets. You can do astrophotography of smaller deep sky objects with your telescope but it will be challenging.

  5. Can the canon t5 with a rokinon 24mm 1.4 lens get the milky way? Or need a better camera…cheaper side but not too cheap…thx

  6. Hi. I`m thinking to get a canon 350d camera.
    Body only . I don`t have any other equipment so i was thinking at the milky way as the main subject.
    Will i get good results without lens and tracking device with 10 yo camera?

    • Stefan, You need a lens of some sort, whether that’s a camera lens or a telescope. Depending on your budget, I recommend going with a slightly newer model, maybe a Canon T5, which I’m seeing specials on for around $200 with a basic lens (factory refurbished from Canon). Without any tracking, the general rule of thumb is to divide your focal length by 400 for the total number of second you can expose before the star trailing would become too pronounced. For instance, with a 50mm lens, you could do about 8 seconds. That’s a general guideline of course, and you can adjust to your preference. (Star trail shots are also cool!) You should also plan on at least a basic tripod and an intervalometer. Hope that helps!

  7. I was looking at the cameras you recommended and came across Nikon D3300 with grate review, do you have any opinion on this camera?

    • No personal experience with the Nikon cameras, but as mentioned in the article, just about any DSLR will work pretty well for AP!

  8. I’m EXTREMELY interested in your feedback regarding the Canon T6s/i

    I’m about thiiiiiis close to pulling the trigger. I run an AT65EDQ on AVX with SSAG for DSO/wide field.

    • While I haven’t gotten around to doing a writeup on it yet, I’ll say I’m very happy with the T6s. The battery is smaller than the one in the T3i or 7DII, but it actually lasts for quite a bit longer running the cameras side by side (actually twice as long as the batteries in the 7DII). Thermal noise level is very good – not been an issue at all. Images are as far as I can tell just about as good as from the 7DII – you’d never see much difference unless you are looking at them side by side at the pixel level, and that would be mostly due to the slightly larger pixels on the 7DII. I’ve taken to basically using the T6s and 7DII interchangeably. Bottom line, I don’t think you can go wrong with either of these cameras. The canon software actually works pretty well for imaging runs as well.

      • Thanks a ton for the reply! I think I’m going to go for it! I was a little concerned about the pixel size, but I’d say this pretty well puts that to bed as far as I’m concerned. Now it’s between the S and the I. The I looked appealing to me at first go given the weight difference (1.7lb vs 2.3lb) with the T6i being slightly lighter. I’m willing to pay the extra for the T6s if it was worth it. Appreciate any thoughts on model difference/preference. For example, is that top LCD really helpful give. The massive flip out and swivel back screen?

        • Oh- almost forgot- any chance of actually using the Canon iPhone app as a functional wifi connected intervalometer?

          BTW- love this site! Your reviews/write ups are great! Thanks so much for the work!

    • I purchased and modified a T6i a few months back for astro. It’s a great camera. I previously had a modded T5i, and the new camera has noticeably better thermal noise. Chroma noise is also lower, particularly at and above ISO 800. The Luminance noise is quite easy to clean up in Post. Horizontal banding is definitely there, however if you use PixInsight, the Canon DeBanding tool eliminates it perfectly. If you pair it with excellent optics you really get the most out of the 24MP sensor. (I’m shooting with canon Version II lenses and the details are incredible). I’m happy to share some images if you like. I don’t know what Sorin’s policy is on that, so I’ll wait for him to give the nod before I put in a link.

  9. Hi, I am a bit amazed that you talk about a Sodium filter for narrow band astro fotography…
    “Mono sensor allows for capture of non-visible wavelengths through narrow band filters (Hydrogen-alpha, Sodium, Oxygen-2)”
    You probly meant an SII filter, which is Sulphur. The Sodium bandwith is the range that you really want to avoid capturing… Streetlights! Also OIII : oxygen III not oxygenII.
    I just want to mention this for clarity’s sake. I realize this must have been a typo. 🙂
    Regards,
    Waldemar

  10. I want to do eyepiece projection astrophotography with a DSLR.Which camera will be better for this?what functions are needed at minimum in the camera to make the job done?

    • Hi Rupan,
      For eyepiece projection, any type of camera works just fine. Actually, compact cameras probably work better for this due to the difficulty of balancing a heavy camera on the eyepiece. I would not recommend using eyepiece projection for any type of long exposure imaging. If you are looking to use a DSLR, I strongly suggest pursuing prime-focus astrophotography. The adapters are very inexpensive and you’ll get much better, more consistent results.

  11. I’m trying to buy one, and i’m thinking of canon 600d or canon 700d. Which one is better for astrophotography?

    • Hi Michael,
      There are very few differences between the 600d (T3i) and 700d (T5i). Probably the biggest difference is the 700D adds a touchscreen which is nice, but by no means a major enhancement. Performance wise, the cameras use the same 18MP sensor, so they should be identical in terms of image quality. You can still buy the T5i new; the T3i is discontinued. You can sometimes find them refurbished from Canon.

      • Thanks for the reply. Also, I have a mirrorless camera Samsung NX300. Would I be still able to take good pictures? I have the tripod, and shutter release cable (but it seems to be working for just 4 minutes).

        • I expect the samsung would work just fine to start out. Are you planning to connect it to a telescope, or use it for wide-field photography with the lens?

          • I’ve took some pictures with a telescope, but mostly I use it for wide-field photography with lens.

          • Then you might also want to consider a sky tracker camera mount. Check back on the site in a week or two, as I’m working on a review of the iOptron SkyTracker now.

            Thanks, and Clear Skies!

      • Michael and Sorin,

        According to testing done by Gary Honis, the T4i (and presumably the T5i) handle thermal noise much much better than the T3i. He illustrates this with dark frames comparing the first 5 minute exposure with one later in a session. The difference is huge. I suspect that it is the downstream electronics (maybe digic 4 vs 5) that contribute to this.

        Sorin, I am perticularly interested in your thoughts on the T6s for Astro. Are you planning to modify it? I currently shoot with an Un-modded 7D2 and a modded T5i. The dark current noise quality on the 7D2 at ISO 1600 is so much better. Im thinking about modifying a t6i/s as I don’t want to modify my 7D2. I’m interested in your conclusions. Thanks for posting all this!

        • Thanks Chris for pointing that out. I wasn’t aware of Gary’s testing. For reference, here are his most recent test results including the T3i and T4i. http://dslrmodifications.com/SL1Review/SL1Review.html

          It does look like the T4i has slightly better thermal management. And Yes, I’m hoping to do similar testing between the T3i, T6s, and 7DII as soon as i have the time!