Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Equipment Analysis 2019-2021

In this article, we have analyzed what equipment has been used in nearly 400 images shortlisted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition in the past three years.

Whether the images are astrophotography landscapes, planetary, or deep sky, we have reviewed what cameras, telescopes, mounts, and star trackers were used to come up with a unique data set.

Key findings include:

  • The Canon EOS 6D is the most successfully used astrophotography camera overall, with Canon the best performing brand.
  • The number of shortlisted images using mirrorless cameras has increased each year and Sony models dominate this section of the market.
  • ZWO is the leading manufacturer of dedicated astronomy cameras, with the ZWO ASI174MM the most successfully used model.
  • Celestron telescopes are the most frequently used, but the Takahashi FSQ-106ED is the most successfully used individual telescope model.
  • Sky-Watcher mounts are by far the most successfully used, with the EQ6 Pro leading the way.
  • The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer is the best performing star tracker.

Read on for all the results and analysis.

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The Astronomy Photographer of the Year Competition

The Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest has been run annually since 2012 by Royal Museums Greenwich in the UK and is probably the most prestigious astrophotography competition in the world.

We have gone through the information provided on 376 images from the past three years (2019, 2020 & 2021) to find out the most used cameras, telescopes, mounts, and star trackers.

To aid our analysis, we categorized all images as either a) landscape astrophotography, b) deep sky, or c) planetary. You can read more information on the Methodology at the bottom of this article, but now we’ll get stuck into the results.


Cameras

First, let’s look at what cameras were used.

We examine here a) camera types, b) camera manufacturers, and c) camera models, and we examine these in relation to what type of astronomy image they were used for (landscape, deep sky, or planetary).

Camera Types

From the three years of shortlisted astrophotography images, there is a split of 55% using DSLR or mirrorless cameras (205 images), and 45% using dedicated astronomy cameras (CCD/CMOS) (169 images):

Camera Types - DSLR/Mirrorless vs Dedicated Astronomy Cameras

For the most part, this reflects the different types of astrophotography images, as dedicated astronomy cameras can be used for deep-sky and planetary photography only, whereas DSLR and mirrorless cameras can be used for landscape astrophotography, as well as deep-sky and planetary.

If you break this down further you can see that across all images, DSLRs are the most likely to be used in shortlisted images:

Camera Types Used in Astronomy Photographer of the Year Shortlisted Images (2019-2021)

Camera Manufacturers

When we compare manufacturers, Canon just edges out Nikon and ZWO as the most successful in the competition, with Sony in fourth:

Camera Brands Used in Astronomy Photographer of the Year Shortlisted Images (2019-2021)

You’ll see that Canon, Nikon, and Sony are the only makers of DLSRs and mirrorless cameras in the top ten. The rest are manufacturers of dedicated astronomy cameras, with ZWO leading the way by far.

Camera Models

In terms of specific camera models, the Canon EOS 6D has been the most successfully used astrophotography camera in the past three years with 37 shortlisted images (10% of all images):

The ZWO ASI174MM is the most commonly used dedicated astronomy camera, followed by the ZWO ASI1600MM.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, the Nikon D750, and Nikon D850 round out the top six. These are all full-frame sensor DSLRs.

Now let’s break down the cameras according to whether they were used for landscape, deep sky, or planetary images as this gives us a better comparison of what the best performing cameras are.

Best Cameras for Landscape Astrophotography

If we look at what camera models have been most successfully used for landscape astrophotography images in the past three years we find the Canon EOS 6D is first:

Camera Models Used for Landscape Astrophotography Images in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2019-2021

Second is the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, and then the Nikon D750 and Nikon D850:

The Sony A7 III is the highest-ranked mirrorless camera for landscape astrophotography images.

Our findings from the past three years indicate that mirrorless cameras are being used more frequently for astrophotography. We dig more into this below.

Mirrorless Cameras Becoming Increasingly Popular

Mirrorless cameras have been increasingly successfully used in the competition in the past three years as you can see in this chart (this includes landscape, deep sky, and planetary images):

Percentage of Shortlisted Images Using Mirrorless Cameras in Astronomy Photographer of the Year (2019-2021)

Sony models dominate in mirrorless cameras in this competition, with 67% of all images taken with a mirrorless camera were using Sony models (Nikon was 14% and Canon 11%).

The chart below shows the percentage of shortlisted images using mirrorless cameras from each brand:

Mirrorless Camera Brands Used in Astronomy Photographer of the Year Shortlisted Images (2019-2021)

The Sony A7R III is the most popularly used mirrorless camera overall, and a range of other Sony mirrorless models have also been successful:

Most Commonly Used Mirrorless Models in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2019-2021

The Nikon Z6 is the highest featuring non-Sony mirrorless camera model, with the Canon EOS R the most commonly used Canon model.

Best Cameras for Deep Sky Astrophotography

If we look at what camera manufacturers have been the most successful for deep sky images we see ZWO leading the way, with SBIG (Diffraction Limited) in second:

Most Used Camera Brands for Deep Sky Astrophotography Images in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2019-2021

Our findings show that FLI (Finger Lakes Instrumentation) and QSI (Quantum Scientific Imaging) are also producing successfully used dedicated astronomy cameras for deep sky imaging.

In terms of specific models, the ZWO ASI1600MM is the most commonly/successfully used deep sky camera from our findings:

Most Used Camera Models for Deep Sky Astrophotography Images in Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2019-2021

Showing its versatility, the Canon EOS 6D is also right up there for deep sky images.

The other cameras in the top five all premium dedicated astronomy CCD cameras:

Best Cameras for Planetary Astrophotography

As with deep sky images, ZWO leads way with cameras for planetary imaging.

The ZWO ASI174MM is the most used by some way, followed by the ZWO ASI178 and the ZWO ASI290:

Most Used Camera Models for Planetary Images (2019-2021)

Again, the Canon EOS 6D represents the DSLRs.

If you want more insight into cameras, see our article on the Best Cameras for Astrophotography.


Telescopes

From three years of data, 189 of the shortlisted images used telescopes. These were all deep sky or planetary images.

We can look first at the most successful brands, and then individual models.

Telescope Manufacturers

Celestron telescopes are comfortably the most successfully used in the past three years of the competition, with their models being used in 42 separate images (or 22% of all images using telescopes):

Telescope Manufacturers used in Astronomy Photographer of the Year images 2019-2021

Celestron sells telescopes across the range, from entry-level to advanced models. This is similar to Sky-Watcher, which comes in third and also offers models for lower and higher budgets.

From these results, we can say that Celestron and Sky-Watcher are dominating the main retail brands for astrophotography telescopes.

The majority of the remaining manufacturers on this list are specialist brands, offering high-level telescopes. The second most successful manufacturer is Takahashi from Japan.

Fourth overall is PlaneWave Instruments, which sell very advanced gear targeted at observatories. Their telescopes have been used in 20 images.

The other highly successful brands are Astro Systeme Austria (ASA) and Astro-Physics.

Telescope Models

The most commonly used single telescope model is the Takahashi FSQ-106ED. This is a quadruplet apochromatic refractor telescope tailored for astrophotography:

Most Used Telescopes in Astronomy Photographer of the Year images 2019-2021

Three Celestron models feature in the top six most used telescopes. These are all catadioptric Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes that can be used for both astronomy (observing) and astrophotography:

The observatory-grade Planewave Corrected Dall-Kirkham (CDK) 24″ and Planewave CDK 17″ feature highly.

The relatively budget Sky-Watcher 8″ Quattro Imaging Newtonian has been used in six shortlisted images.

If you want more insight into telescopes – including digging into the data for planetary vs deep sky imaging, see our article on the Best Telescopes for Astrophotography.


Mounts

A telescope mount was named in 186 images from the past three years. These were all deep-sky and planetary images. (Note that we have separated out camera star trackers in the next section.)

Mount Manufactuers

Sky-Watcher is by far the most successful manufacturer of mounts from our findings, with over one-third of all named mounts being Sky-Watcher models:

Mount Manufacturers used in Astronomy Photographer of the Year images 2019-2021

Astro-Physics and Software Bisque are the second and third most successful mount manufacturers.

Mount Models

The Sky-Watcher EQ6 Pro is the most successfully used individual mount with it being used in 27 images (15% of all those using mounts).

This is actually a fairly old mount that is hard to find in 2021 and has been superseded by the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro, which is used in 5 images.

Similarly, the Sky-Watcher NEQ 6 Pro was also used in 10 images and is actually a slightly older (and very similar) mount that was replaced by the EQ6-R Pro. The Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro also features highly.

From this, we can really see that Sky-Watcher mounts are performing for astrophotography:

Mounts used in Astronomy Photographer of the Year images 2019-2021

The observatory grade Software Bisque Paramount ME (superseded by the Paramount ME II) comes in second and the discontinued Astro-Physics Mach1GTO makes up the rest of the top five.

If you want to read more about mounts then see the Best Telescope Mounts for Astrophotography


Star Trackers

Star Trackers were named in 19 images.

About half of these were taken with the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, although nearly the same amount were taken with either iOptron’s SkyTracker Pro or SkyGuider Pro:

Star Trackers used in Astronomy Photographer of the Year images 2019-2021

The MoveShootMove was used in two images and both of these were in the 2021 shortlist, reflecting its emergence into the market to challenge the Sky-Watcher and iOptron models.

If you want to read more about star trackers then see the Best Star Trackers for Astrophotography


Methodology

We produced these findings by manually analyzing the information provided on the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

In 2021, there were 132 images shortlisted as finalists in the competition in 10 different categories: Our Moon, Our Sun, People and Space, Galaxies, Skyscapes, Planets, Comets and Asteroids, Stars and Nebulae, as well as Best Newcomer and Young Photographer.

There is also an image innovation category that involves using publicly available data from sources like NASA, rather than taking pictures. We haven’t included these in our data as no amateur equipment would have been used.

From three years of data we have 376 photos that we can look at for the gear used (118 images from 2019, 126 from 2020, and 132 from 2021).

The categories change slightly each year and so to aid our analysis we have categorized each image as either landscape, deep sky, or planetary.

Broken down this way we have:

  • 138 landscape astrophotography images: Images of the Milky Way and star trails above the Earth – as long as part of the Earth’s landscape makes up part of the image, including auroroae.
  • 126 deep sky images: Deep sky objects like galaxies and nebulae.
  • 112 planetary images: This covers the major planets and objects in our solar system, including the sun (solar) and the moon (lunar).

Breaking up the images into these categories is necessary as different cameras and equipment are used for these different types of astrophotography and so aids our analysis.

It’s worth noting below where it may seem that there are minor anomalies in the results:

  • Some individual photographers have more than one photo shortlisted and so may use the same equipment more than once and will be counted more than once in the results.
  • Some may also use more than one camera or lens for a single photo, in these cases both pieces of equipment are counted in the results.
  • Some equipment details are not always clear, i.e. different names used for the same equipment or manufacturer not named, etc. In these cases, we’ve tried to find the correct make/model used in the US market. There are also anomalies such as the FLIR Grasshopper camera which combines CCD and CMOS sensor, so are counted towards both.
  • Sometimes equipment information is missing, for example, no star tracker or tracking mount mentioned even though the length of the exposure would have required it.
  • Some cameras may have been astro modified and some images used filters.
  • The image innovation category is for images that have been processed from publically available data provided by space telescopes like Hubble. These haven’t been included in the equipment analysis as it wouldn’t make a useful comparison.
  • Some photographers used homemade mounts or telescopes and these have been left out of the results.

Conclusions

We hope that is useful for you, whether you are researching equipment, entering competitions, or just following astrophotography trends.

This is not a scientific study as it’s a relatively small amount of data to work with and we can only see the images that made the final shortlist, but we believe it provides a good insight it what astrophotography gear is excelling in 2021 and recent years.

One thing to note is that being more frequently used doesn’t necessarily mean the gear is “better”. It may also be a reflection that it is more affordable and within reach for more people.

If you have any thoughts or questions, please use the comment box at the bottom.

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3 thoughts on “Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Equipment Analysis 2019-2021”

  1. What a wonderful review. however the results of having all this equipment fade quickly when we cannot see the results of using it. When can we see the photographs !
    Regards John.

    Reply

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