Astrophotography Cameras - Featured Image

The 4 Best Astrophotography Cameras for Any Budget

In Space Gearby Charlie Gardiner6 Comments

Looking up at the night sky and wanting to capture its awe-inspiring beauty is a feeling familiar to most photographers and astronomy enthusiasts. In this article, I’ll to explain exactly how to do that and which of the best astrophotography cameras are right for you and your budget.

I’m coming at it from a photographer’s point of view: I spend my time showing people how to become travel photographers, and shooting astrophotography is a great way to develop your skills behind the camera.

While there are some amazing cameras out there specifically designed for astrophotography, I’m going to focus on more traditional consumer/prosumer cameras. The astrophotography cameras I’m going to talk about don’t need expensive filters and complicated computer-controlled, star-tracking tripod mounts in order to work.

At its most basic level, all you’ll need to create stunning images of the sky at night is one of the cameras mentioned in this article (or similar), a lens, a tripod and your own sense of creativity.

What to Consider When Shooting Astrophotography

Night Sky with Foreground Interest

By far the most important settings you need to consider are the exposure settings. These will tell your camera how much light to capture. Something that you won’t be surprised to hear is very important when shooting in the dead of night.

1. Aperture

The first thing you need to set is your aperture. It’s really simple, you just set it to be as wide as possible.

2. Shutter Speed

Next up is the shutter speed. This depends on what focal length you are using. To roughly calculate your shutter speed you should use the “rule of 500”. The rule of 500 says that you should divide 500 by whatever focal length you are using to obtain your shutter speed.

For example, if you are using a 50mm lens you calculate 500 ÷ 50 = 10. So, in this case, your shutter speed would be 10 seconds. Any longer would mean the stars would become blurry and leave trails behind them caused by the spinning of the earth.

Whether you want to have totally sharp and in focus stars, or you would rather they create star trails, is down to personal taste and what you are trying to achieve.

You can merge multiple long exposure images together so that you get a dramatic star trail effect like in the photo above. Alternatively, if you want sharp and in focus stars like in the photo below, you need to follow the rule of 500.

Star Trails

3. ISO

The ISO you’ll use totally depends on a number of different factors like your lens’s maximum aperture, ambient light, and model of camera. But as a rule of thumb, it should be somewhere between 2000 and 5000. Just take several test shots and see what looks best.

4. Focus

To ensure your images are all in focus, switch your camera and lens to manual focus and twist the focus ring all the way to infinity.

5. LCD Screen Brightness

In your camera’s settings, you need to turn the LCD screen brightness down as low as it will go. LCD screens are backlit, so if you don’t turn the brightness down the image previews on the back or your camera won’t accurately represent the actual photo.

When you get back to your computer and take a look at the files you’ll be bitterly disappointed if you had the LCD brightness turned up. They will look much darker and a lot less spectacular than they did when you previewed them on your camera.

Milky Way

6. Ability to Shoot in RAW

You need to shoot in RAW format when it comes to astrophotography because it gives you much more flexibility during the editing process. Photos of the night sky come alive in the editing suite so it’s important to capture as much information as possible in a large file.

7. Location Scouting

Planning when and where your shoot will take place is just as important as choosing the best camera for astrophotography. You need to check the weather and plan to shoot when the skies are clear.

Also, you’ll need to find a location with minimal light pollution. The same goes for nights when the moon is very bright. You are best off choosing to shoot on a night when there will be minimal moonlight.

One last thing to consider is your composition.

While pointing your camera straight up at the sky is a great way to get some stunning images, think about how you can add perspective to the scene by incorporating some foreground interest.

Think about these things when choosing your next astrophotography shoot location and you’ll already be halfway there to capturing a keeper.

What to Consider When Choosing Astrophotography Cameras

Moon Shot with an APS-C Sensor

A lot of people will say that you need a full-frame camera for shooting the night sky. They say this for a number of reasons but it’s mainly because full-frame cameras have larger sensors. A larger sensor means it has a greater dynamic range, or in other words, it will perform better in low-light situations.

But if you’re on a budget, buying a full-frame camera might simply not be an option. However don’t worry, you can still shoot astrophotography.

If you are on a budget, you’ll need a digital camera with an APS-C sensor, sometimes known as a crop sensor. These sensors are smaller than full-frame ones but when used in the right way can produce amazing results. APS-C cameras also tend to be cheaper.

There are two main things to look for when choosing the best camera for night sky photography. Number one is the ability to use full manual mode, and the second is the ability to change lenses.

You need to be able to use a wide-angle lens (more on this later) and control the three main settings manually when it comes to exposure: ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

The Best Budget-Friendly Astrophotography Cameras

Night Sky Shot on Sony A6000 - Ricardo Braham via Flickr

Shot with a Sony a6000 – Photo credit: Ricardo Braham via Flickr

Ok, so I’m going to recommend a total of four cameras that are great for night sky photography. These first two cameras are great options for people on a budget and beginners.

Sony A6000

Best Astrophotography Cameras - Sony a6000

The first astrophotography camera on this list is one of Sony’s entry-level mirrorless cameras. It’s a great camera for beginners or people just getting started out in astrophotography.

You can get the camera and lens together in a kit for a reasonable price. While getting the camera with a kit lens is a great idea, especially if it’s your first camera, the kit lens isn’t necessarily the best lens for astrophotography. But it is a great lens when you’re starting out for other types of photography.

For astrophotography, you’ll need a much wider focal length and maximum aperture. I recommend pairing the Sony a6000 with the Samyang 12mm f/2.0 E-mount lens for the best results. The Samyang lens is affordable and known for being a superb lens for shooting the night sky.

The only downside to the Sony a6000 is that because it has a smaller APS-C sized sensor, the image quality at high ISOs does suffer. You shouldn’t really go over ISO 3200 with this camera. You can achieve great shots under ISO 3200 though and, for the price, you can’t really complain.

Specifications:

  • Sensor: APS-C
  • Megapixels: 24.3
  • Focus points: 204 total
  • Native ISO range: 100 – 25600
  • Native shutter speed: 1/4000 – 30-sec

Buy the Sony a6000 on Amazon

Fujifilm X-T20

Best Astrophotography Cameras - Fujifilm X-T2 - Focus35mm via Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Focus35mm via Wikimedia Commons

In my opinion, the Fujifilm X-T20 is the best cheap camera for night sky photography. I personally own an X-T20 and can vouch for its superior image quality.

The thing that I love about the X-T20, and all Fujis for that matter, is the tactile dials it has. They allow you to physically adjust the camera’s setting without diving into the menu. The old-school feel of the camera combined with the latest modern technology makes it a pleasure to use.

It’s fun and brings joy back to photography.

And if it’s a pleasure to use, it encourages you to go out and shoot more. Practice will improve your photography more than anything else.

Again, since we are talking about budget-friendly options, the best lens for this camera when it comes to shooting the sky at night is the Samyang 12mm f/2.0 x-mount. Note the different mounts between the Sony and the Fujifilm. You must choose the right mount for the right camera.

Specifications:

  • Sensor: APS-C
  • Megapixels: 24.3
  • Focus points: 325 total
  • Native ISO range: 200 – 12800
  • Native shutter speed: 1/4000 – 30 sec

Buy the Fujifilm X-T20 on Amazon

The Best High-Performance Astrophotography Cameras

Night Sky Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV - Rodrigo Paredes via Flickr

Shot on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV – Rodrigo Paredes via Flickr

These next two cameras are geared towards advanced amateurs and pros. You will be able to achieve incredible results with them, but those results come at a cost.

Sony A7Riii

Best Astrophotography Cameras - Sony a7riii

The first high-performance camera on this list is another Sony. The A7Riii is a flagship model and is jam-packed full of powerful features. From its mammoth 42.2 megapixel sensor to its low-light performance and video capabilities, it is probably the best all-around camera on the market today.

Its full-frame sensor absorbs as much light as you can throw at it making it a great astrophotography camera.

It’s the only camera on this list to have In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) which comes in very handy for astrophotography. Any unintended camera shake during the long exposures needed to capture the stars will be eliminated.

Pair this camera with the equally mind-blowing FE 24mm f/1.4 GM lens and you’ve got a package that will help you capture the stars and beyond like no other.

Specifications:

  • Sensor: Full frame
  • Megapixels: 42.2
  • Focus points: 824 total
  • Native ISO range: 100 – 32000
  • Native shutter speed: 1/8000 – 30 sec

Buy the Sony A7Riii on Amazon

Canon 5D Mark IV

Best Astrophotography Cameras - Canon 5D Mark iv

Canon’s latest iteration of its famous 5D model is the last camera we are going to talk about. The 5D Mark IV has led the charge for Canon in the “prosumer” market since 2016 when it was first released.

It has proven its worth as a true workhorse that can be relied upon in any situation. It too has a full frame sensor which will help you to extract every bit of detail from the night sky. With a great dynamic range and low-light performance, the Canon 5D Mark IV firmly cements its place on this list.

One of the best things about Canon cameras though is the range of lenses available. Canon produces some of the best glass out of any camera manufacturer. The EF 24mm f/1.4L II USM is probably Canon’s best wide-angle lens. But if you want something totally different, you can have a lot of fun with their fisheye lens, the EF 8-15mm f/4L Fisheye USM. Fisheye lenses really come into their own in astrophotography.

Specifications:

  • Sensor: Full frame
  • Megapixels: 30.4
  • Focus points: 61 total
  • Native ISO range: 100 – 32000
  • Native shutter speed: 1/8000 – 30 sec

Buy the Canon 5D Mark IV on Amazon

Other Photography Gear You’ll Need for Astrophotography

Man Looking at Colorful Milky Way

There are a few extra pieces of equipment you’ll need for astrophotography.

Tripod

You will be shooting long exposures. The camera has to be kept totally still for the duration of the exposure. So a good quality tripod is essential.

And I do mean a good quality one.

A cheap, flimsy one won’t work, especially if you are on soft, uneven ground or there is any wind. Go for reputable brands like Manfrotto or Vanguard. Something like the Vanguard Alta Pro 263B or the Manfrotto MT055CX Pro4 (catchy name, right?) will do the job.

Shutter Release or Remote

Most cameras can only shoot up to a 30-second exposure without a shutter release cable. While you probably won’t need to go over 30 seconds for astrophotography, you do need to minimize camera shake as much as possible.

Even pressing the shutter button to take a photo wobbles the camera slightly. Using a shutter release cable or remote eliminates that.

Red Light Flashlight/Headlamp

You’re going to be setting your gear up in the dark so it’s a great idea to have a red flashlight with you. Even better, a headlamp with a red setting will give you two hands free for setup and shooting.

At the end of the day, choosing the best camera for night sky photography comes down to personal preference and budget. While an expensive 40+ megapixel camera may be a great choice on paper, if it’s unattainable to you then it simply isn’t the best option.

As Chase Jarvis said: “The best camera is the one that’s with you”.

The best way you can improve any type of photography is by getting out there and practicing. Once you have the best astrophotography camera for you, spend your money on things like travel. The more you focus on shooting different locations, the quicker you’ll find your photography improving.

If you have any questions about these cameras or astrophotography, leave them in the comments below.

About the Author
Charlie Gardiner

Charlie Gardiner

Charlie has always had a fascination with space. From an early age, he loved identifying the constellations in the night’s sky. Now, as a photographer, his passion is adventuring out at night and pointing his camera up into the vastness of space. See more of his photography at worldoftravelphotography.com.

Comments

  1. Avatar

    Great article, thank you! Could you recommend a shutter release or remote for a Nikon D3400?

    1. Charlie

      When it comes to shutter realises I don’t think you need anything fancy. I’ve only ever used the cheapest ones possible and they work just fine, as long as it opens and closes the shutter you’re good to go. I’d recommend something like this for the D3400: https://amzn.to/31xtiuI

    2. Avatar

      Just lookup Nikon D3400 Wireless Remote Control. Can get one in eBay for less then 2 bucks.

  2. Avatar

    Hello Charlie,
    Thank you for the camera advice. Does the use of a camera with a telescope change your recommendations at all? That is, when using a camera body without the lens, are there cameras you’d recommend rather than those you’ve listed here? I’m looking for something in the $750-$1,000 range, for a body, with an adjustable LCD screen and wi-fi capability. Thanks for any advice you can offer!

    Tim

  3. Avatar

    Thank you. I am trying to replace my old Canon Powershot that has shot some OK but limited time lapse night sky video and am searching for articles like yours to help me with that decision. I think that your cameras + lenses are out of my budget? But great article. Thank you

    1. Valerie Stimac

      Thanks for reading, Dan! Unfortunately good astrophotography cameras do require an investment, though smartphone cameras are getting better at it to!

Leave a Comment