Capture The Night Sky In Style
We all love looking up at the night sky, whether for inspiration, a sense of tranquility, or just as a reminder of how vast the mysterious cosmos really is. For photography lovers, there is nothing better than getting the perfect snapshot of a starry night sky, a flaring constellation, or an expanse of twinkling white lights and dynamic colors. However, if you are looking to get serious about astrophotography – that is, if you want photos that reveal the true wonder of space and not just some blurry lights – you are going to need a quality camera. This means no smartphones, and disposable cameras are certainly out of the question.
The good news is that in our age of advanced technology, the ability to capture a perfect image of the celestial wonders that are visible at night has never been easier. There are many cameras available today that can take excellent photos in low light (or even in pitch blackness). In some cases they’re even pretty affordable – you won’t have to break the bank to pay for one. Walk into any electronics store and you can find plenty of options for technologically advanced cameras that were previously reserved for astronomers and NASA scientists. What used to take up an entire room of an observatory can now be held in your hand.
Before you run to the nearest electronics store and pick the most expensive or the fanciest-looking camera you can find, there are a few things to take into consideration. Whether you are a seasoned professional who needs a new camera or simply an amateur interested in astrophotography, you are going to want your subjects – whether it’s the Milky Way, the glowing red ball in the sky we call Mars, or stellar constellations – to be crisp and visible. For that, you need the best possible camera for the job, one tailored to your specific (cosmic) needs.
What To Look For In An Astrophotography Camera
2020 is a great year for amateur photographers of every breed, even those interested in capturing the infinite beauty of the great beyond. Starting out is not nearly as difficult as you may think. With the right camera and lens, you could be taking unbelievable images of the Horsehead Nebula by 6 P.M. tonight!
When selecting a camera for astrophotography, it is important to keep a few things in mind. You want your pictures to be clear and the colors to be vivid, so you need a camera that is perfect in situations with low lighting. In essence, you want to capture a photo with tons of bright, sparkling colors and dynamic hues without it blurring. Here are the main things to look for:
ISO is a term that not many people new to photography are going to know. Think of ISO as the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. This is the mechanism that will capture very weak and distant lights. Have you ever taken a photo of a city at night from a rooftop with your cellphone and been horribly disappointed by the blurry lights and hazy quality? This is because your phone has a very low ISO.
By purchasing a camera with a high ISO value, you are going to get photos with bright distant lights. A high ISO setting will pick up stars far off in the night sky just as well as your naked eye can, or even better. This is critical for taking photographs of black skies and getting crystal-clear images of the stars.
Sensors are almost more complex than ISOs. In general, most DSLR type cameras that are full frame will have a powerful enough sensor to accommodate pictures of the stars and the moon. Think about a nighttime beach with an amazingly vivid photo of the moon hanging on the horizon – this is possible with most sensors, assuming you have the appropriate shutter speed and ISO setting.
However, if you are planning to take your astrophotography seriously and you want to catch pictures of distant galaxies and twinkling star clusters, you are going to need a bit more out of your sensor. This is for people who want to try out “deep-sky” astrophotography. Deep sky means more than the boring ol’ moon and the few stars we can see from our porches. It means going so far as to capture images of the more intense light show way back in deep space. For this, you are going to want a CCD or a CMOS sensor.
Both a CMOS and CCD are ideal for shots that require long exposure. They are generally more professional and technologically advanced than other sensors. It is important to note that these impressive sensors are going to cost you significantly more than your simple low-light camera. Still, they will make a world of difference in the quality of your images.
The Size Of The Image Sensor
The size of your camera’s sensor is just as important as what kind of sensor it is. Just like with everything else, the quality of the sensor is going to vary drastically from camera to camera. Still, it’s not too complicated. There are basically two main sizes of sensors available: full-frame sensor and crop sensor, also known as an APS-C sensor.
For our mission of acquiring the best astrophotography camera, a full-frame sensor is recommended. The reason for this is that with a full-frame sensor, your camera can capture more light, which is crucial when taking photos of the night sky (because of the absence of light). The full-frame sensor also has enhanced ISO capabilities. The depth field you get with a full-frame sensor is not so great, but it won’t affect your cosmic snapshots at all.
Crop sensors are much smaller than full-frame sensors, by roughly 2.5 times. While these sensors are perfect for zooming in on things and offering a high field of depth, they don’t capture as much light. These are definitely not recommended for astrophotography.
This is a big one. The shutter speed on your camera is the mechanism that controls how much light will enter and how much light is processed by the sensors. You may have seen other photographers in action and noticed how the shutter is closed when not in use, then how the shutter opens to take a photo. This is to keep the sensitive mechanisms, like the sensors, protected inside of your camera. The shutter is what gives each photo the iconic ‘click’ sound.
While sports photography and other forms of action photography demand a super snappy shutter, astrophotography is the opposite. The galaxy is not going anywhere in a hurry, (as opposed to a race car or a football player). Because of this, you want the shutter to remain open for longer. This gives your camera, the sensor, and the processors time to properly capture the light shining at you from millions of light years away.
Dynamic range is a fancy way of saying color, tones, and hues. When talking about the dynamic range capabilities of your camera, we are talking about exactly how much of the vivid color and sharp tones can be captured.
Having a high dynamic range means you are going to capture all the minute details of shadows, wispy cosmic tendrils, and faint highlights of color that your eyes can barely perceive. As you can imagine, this is crucial when practicing astrophotography. You want all the explosive oranges, cool blues, and neon greens of space to come out clear and sharp in your photographs. A low dynamic range will give you blurry, amateurish photos with splotches of indiscernible color and a lot of smearing.
The Megapixel Count
This is the area you are probably most familiar with. We all know about megapixels – they are the main selling point for every new smartphone that comes out. But what are they really, and what do megapixels mean for astrophotography?
The more megapixels your camera captures, the more detail will be shown in the final image. This is why things like 4K and 8K have such amazing images, because they are so high in megapixels. If your camera does not have sufficient megapixel capabilities, it will not be able to give you pictures that are large and full of complex details and vivid colors.
It is imperative that your camera can pick up enough megapixels to produce a jaw-dropping photograph of the distant stars and planets and all the light they emit. This will give you the high resolution you need for getting the most out of astrophotography.
The Best Cameras For Astrophotography
We have put together a list of some of the best cameras for astrophotography. Keep in mind that there are many cameras out there capable of doing the job, but these are some of the very best.
This is truly an incredible camera. When you want to take striking photos of the night sky, the moon, or your favorite group of stars, reach for the Nikon D850. This monster is a full-frame sensor camera with capabilities of a whopping 46.8 megapixels. Compare that to your cellphone’s measly 8 megapixels and you will understand how serious this camera is. It produces fantastic pictures in low-light situations (meaning space and the night sky) and uses its powerful BSI image sensor to turn you from a star gazer into a budding astrophotographer.
Advantages of Nikon D850:
- ISO range between 64-25,600
- Reverse illumination from the CMOS matrix
- High-speed XQD & SD UHS-II memory cards are supported
- You get 100% frame coverage with the large viewfinder
- Image quality is perfect
- 1,800+ images on a single battery
- Great for beginners
Disadvantages of Nikon D850:
- Does not have a built-in flash
- SnapBridge has been known to work a little slowly
- Bluetooth and Wi-Fi can lag.
Despite the minor disadvantages, the D850 from Nikon is one of the best DSLR cameras for astrophotography you can get your hands on.
Sony has always been at the forefront of camera technology. It is no surprise that their A7R III Mirrorless Camera is such a hot item for those who love taking photos of the stars. Astrophotography has never been easier, thanks to this great camera.
It can capture a huge number of megapixels, exactly 42.2 of them. The A7R runs on a CMOS sensor and a rather impressive imaging processor. Combine all these features and you’ll get high-resolution photographs of planets, nebulas, stars, and maybe one or two spaceships.
Advantages of Sony A7R III:
- 2 megapixels
- The ISO maximum is 32,000
- Bionz X image processor
- CMOS sensor
- 5-axis image stabilization
- Very high-resolution photos
- Two slots for memory cards
- Geotagging via Wi-Fi & Bluetooth
- Extended mode capable
Disadvantages of Sony A7R III:
- The menu can be a little confusing
- Touch-screen interface does not have a lot of options.
However, these small details don’t take away at all from the power, prestige, and usefulness of the Sony A7R III as one of the all-time best mirrorless cameras for astrophotography.
This offering from Canon is a little on the duller side of things, as it is a more affordable option when stacked against some of the seriously expensive cameras that operate with over 40 megapixels. The 80D is capable of processing only 24.2 megapixels – but that is still nothing to sneeze at!
The 80D is a powerful camera that works with a smart dual-pixel CMOS sensor. The ISO range is huge, between 100 and 128,000. It also offers wireless capabilities. The low-light power of this camera is fantastic, combining with its adjustable exposure time to capture high-quality photos of space. Photograph all the cosmic wonders you can fathom with this great astrophotography camera.
Advantages of Canon 80D Digital SLR:
- 2 megapixels
- Viewfinder is intelligent
- Wireless capabilities
- Huge ISO range up to 128,000 when extended
- CMOS sensor
- Advanced shutter system
- Great in low light
- High resolution
Disadvantages of Canon 80D Digital SLR:
- Does not support 4K video.
- Only has one slot for an SD card
- Viewfinder can be confusing.
The Canon EOS 80D is an excellent choice of camera for astrophotography, whether you are a pro or an amateur!
The K3 is one of the most affordable low light astrophotography cameras you can get your hands on. Pentax has fashioned this camera with a stunning resolution of 23.3 megapixels, meaning all your snapshots of the night sky are going to come out clear and vivid.
While this may not be the most prestigious camera around, and you are probably not going to take any extremely penetrating photos of the outer cosmos, it is an ideal camera for beginners who want to dip their toes into astrophotography without breaking the bank.
Advantages of the Pentax K3:
- Sleek Design
- The AF is enhanced
- Live view mode has amazing focus qualities
- Compact and portable
Disadvantages of the Pentax K3:
- The K3 has been notorious for its annoying arrangement of the buttons, sometimes making it inconvenient to handle.
- The focus will remain centered
The K3 from Pentax is a great choice for astrophotography newbies.
The X-T2 camera from Fujifilm is not only a strong low light camera. It is also a durable and tough camera that is going to work for you in astrophotography, day photography, city photography, and anywhere else your love for photography may take you.
It comes packed with a huge APS-C sensor that captures all the light from the night sky and gives you photographs with a resolution of 24.3 megapixels. The engine inside the X-T2 has been enhanced to give you quicker focusing, less noise, and better image quality. This is an all-around camera that is great for astrophotography while still being effective in day-to-day operations.
Advantages of the Fujifilm X-T2 Mirrorless Camera:
- Phenomenal picture quality
- Smart and strong design
- Battery grip
- Space for two extra batteries
- 3 megapixels
- Less Noise
- 325-point autofocus system
- High ISO
- Resistant to dust and water
Disadvantages of the Fujifilm X-T2 Mirrorless Camera:
- In truth, the only con to this great little camera is that the internal stabilization can sometimes give you difficulties.
Fujifilm has done an excellent job with the X-T2. This is an affordable option that gives you a whole night sky of possibilities with your astrophotography.