We analyzed 350+ images that were shortlisted for Astronomy Photographer of the Year in the past three years to find the Best Camera for Astrophotography in 2021.
Using our data (along with recommendations from astrophotographers in our case studies) you can find the right camera to enable you to take stunning images of the Milky Way or galaxies in deep space.
Read on to see our recommendations, and understand what to look for in an astrophotography camera.
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What’s the Best Camera for Astrophotography?
We analyzed all 376 images shortlisted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition for the past three years (2019, 2020, and 2021) to see what cameras were used.
We found that:
- The Canon EOS 6D was the most frequently used DSLR and best performing overall
- The Sony A7R III was the most frequently used mirrorless camera
- The ZWO ASI1600MM Pro is the best camera for deep-sky photography
- The ZWO ASI174MM is the best camera for planetary photography
See the results here of the top six cameras (percentage of shortlisted images in which they were used):
These were great findings as cameras like the Canon 6D and the Nikon D750 are relatively old and can be found for around half the price of the top range cameras (and maybe even cheaper if you pick one up used), yet they are clearly capable of delivering fantastic results.
Some of these cameras in the chart above are quite different from others, so read below for an explanation of the different types of cameras you can use for astronomy photography.
Best DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras for Astrophotography
Let’s now examine the best DSLR and mirrorless cameras for astrophotography in more detail.
Here are the results with these only types of cameras included (percentage of all images taken with DSLR or mirrorless cameras):
We can see that the Canon EOS 6D and Canon EOS 5D Mark IV are the most successfully used models, followed by the Nikon D750, D850, and the (now discontinued) D810A. Two Sony mirrorless models are then the fifth and sixth best performers.
If you want to read the full results of this analysis, see Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Equipment Analysis 2019-2021.
Now we will examine these top cameras to explore the pros and cons of each.
Best Cameras for Astrophotography
Best Canon DSLR for Astrophotography
The Canon EOS 6D is the most successfully used camera by far in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards in the past three years and we recommend here the Canon EOS 6D Mark II as the best Canon for astrophotography and possibly the best camera for astrophotography overall in 2021.
It was released in 2017 as an updated model from the original that was released in 2012 (see more in the box below on how the two models compare).
It is a full-frame DSLR with a 26.2 Megapixel sensor and an ISO range of up to 40,000.
What makes this such a great option as an astrophotography camera is that it clearly delivers in this area but is also relatively cheap compared to newer full-frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that have been released in the past few years.
We have examples on this site that show what pictures can be taken with the Canon 6D – see our case studies with Ivan Slade and Leonardo Orazi. These results speak for themselves and this is a great astrophotography camera.
- Camera type: DSLR
- Sensor type: Full-frame
- Sensor size: 26.2 MP
- ISO range: 100-40,000
What’s the best Canon camera for astrophotography?
Using our research and findings we recommend that the Canon EOS 6D Mark II is the best Canon astrophotography camera.
The alternative to these is the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV which is actually the second most successfully used camera in our Astronomy Photographer of the Year results (see the first chart on this article).
It is a high-end full-frame DSLR but has some improved features over the 6D, such as better video capability. It is generally more expensive than the 6D though, and so we haven’t featured it as we believe the Canon EOS 6D Mark II is the best value for money.
You may prefer the 5D Mark IV over the 6D though if you want a professional-level camera for more than just astrophotography.
Canon EOS 6D vs 6D Mark II for astrophotography
The Canon EOS 6D Mark II is a more recent model (released in 2017) and an update on the original 6D with some slight modifications (like a flip screen). It is also a full-frame DSLR but with a bigger (26.2 megapixel) sensor.
Both models are great for astrophotography and so I say if you are happy with a used model, then find a second-hand 6D, if you just prefer owning a new camera, then go for a 6D Mark II.
Best Nikon DSLR for Astrophotography
Our findings indicate that the top-rated Nikon is the Nikon D750.
Similar to the Canon 6D outlined above, this was a good discovery for those on a budget as, again, it is a relatively old camera (released in 2014). However, the evidence shows that it is still being used extremely successfully by astrophotographers today.
The Nikon D750 is a full-frame sensor DSLR. It has a 24.3-megapixel sensor, a tilting touchscreen (which is extremely when photographing the night sky – as are the illuminated buttons), and an ISO that goes up to 51,200.
You can see images taken with this camera in this case study with photographer Marcus Cote.
I personally have a D750 as my camera of choice for astrophotography. I favor it over the Canon EOS 6D solely because my previous camera was a Nikon and I had a few Nikon-fitting lenses that I wanted to be able to reuse.
If it wasn’t for this then it would be a pretty even shoot out between which of these two cameras are the best value for astrophotography and both work extremely well for this purpose and can be picked up for relatively cheap (especially if bought used).
- Camera type: DSLR
- Sensor type: Full-frame
- Sensor size: 24.3 MP
- ISO range: 100 -12,800, expandable to 51,200
Best Sony Mirrorless for Astrophotography
Our findings show that the Sony A7R III is the most successfully used mirrorless camera in astrophotography.
“for astro the dynamic range is insanely good” – Ivan Slade
“the Sony Camera system has the best dynamic range I’ve ever used allowing me to really push my files in post-processing” – Talman Madsen
The Sony A7R III is a full-frame mirrorless camera released in 2017. It has a 42.4 MP image sensor and a high ISO of 204,800 with excellent noise performance. It has a tilting screen and at 1.45 lbs it is significantly lighter than many DSLR models featured here and feels less clunky to carry.
Any lens of just about any brand can be used with the camera with the use of an additional adapter.
There are many other great Sony full-frame mirrorless models that will excel for astrophotography but our data shows the Sony A7R III can deliver brilliant results.
- Camera type: Mirrorless
- Sensor type: Full-frame
- Sensor size: 42.4 MP
- ISO range: 100-32,000 (expandable to 50-102,400)
What’s the best Sony camera for astrophotography?
Some prominent astrophotographers (like Alyn Wallace) have recently moved over to using Sony mirrorless models instead of DSLRs as their camera of choice for astronomy imaging.
As outlined above, we recommend the Sony A7R III because it came out as the top-performing mirrorless and top Sony camera in our Astronomy Photographer of the Year analysis – see this chart:
The second most successful Sony camera (and overall mirrorless camera) is the Sony A7 III, which is in the mid-range price-wise for Sony models and so provides good value for money and is well worth considering alongside the A7R III due to the lower price.
It’s worth noting that there was previously an astrophotography issue with Sony mirrorless cameras where a firmware update resulted in stars disappearing from images as they were mistaken by the camera as ‘hot pixels’ and deleted.
This was known as the “star eater” issue. However, the problem was resolved in 2018 and should not be a barrier to you considering using a Sony mirrorless camera for astrophotography now.
Best Dedicated Astronomy Cameras (CCD/CMOS)
Dedicated astronomy cameras (CCD and CMOS cameras) are specialist astrophotography cameras for use with telescopes.
Using our data we can see here the most successfully used dedicated astronomy cameras in the competition:
When we separate for deep sky and planetary photography, there are clear winners in each:
- The ZWO ASI1600MM Pro is the best camera for deep-sky photography.
- The ZWO ASI174MM is the best camera for planetary photography.
Best dedicated camera for deep sky imaging
Our findings show that the ZWO ASI1600MM Pro monochrome CMOS camera is the most popularly used dedicated astronomy camera for deep sky images:
It is ideal for photographing deep space objects like galaxies and nebulae but needs to be used with other equipment and is for advanced astronomy imagers.
Best dedicated astronomy camera for planetary photography
The ZWO ASI174MM monochrome CMOS camera was the most popular dedicated astronomy camera used in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest in the past two years.
You can see on the very first chart in this article that it is the third most popularly used camera of any type, and the majority of these images are for solar system photography (planetary, solar, lunar) for which it specializes.
What types of astrophotography cameras are there?
Let’s now take it back a step and review how these cameras outlined above differ.
When picking a camera for astrophotography there are four main categories to consider:
- Entry-level DSLR cameras (with “crop” sensors)
- Professional-level full-frame sensor DSLRs or mirrorless cameras
- Astro-modified DSLR/mirrorless cameras
- Dedicated astronomy cameras (CCD/CMOS)
What is best for you will depend on your level of experience/ambition, and what you plan to do with it.
1. Entry-level DSLRs – best cheap cameras for astrophotography
These are the cheapest cameras for astrophotography and the best if you are on a budget and just looking to casually explore photographing the night sky whilst also using it for everyday photography.
An up-to-date entry-level DSLR from a leading manufacturer like Canon, Nikon, or Pentax will be capable of capturing the stars and Milky Way, as well as deep-sky objects if you work hard.
They will generally cost in the region of $500-$600 if bought new, cheaper if buying used (which is a perfectly good option using a retailer like KEH).
What differentiates them from the higher-performing DLSR or mirrorless models covered below is that they will have what is known as an APS-C or “crop” sensor, instead of a full-frame sensor.
This makes them cheaper, but, for astrophotography, this will mean a slightly lower performance in taking clear images of the night sky.
However, as you can see in our data below, 14% of shortlisted images for Astronomy Photographer of the Year use APS-C cameras. This shows that they are perfectly capable of delivering results, although you can see that full-frame cameras dominate.
Recommended beginners’ astrophotography cameras are:
These are the latest entry-level cameras from these leading manufacturers and have the potential to capture great images and provide good value for money.
The Pentax K-70 is a great option if you have no preference for Canon or Nikon. One of the main features that distinguish it from the Nikon D3500 or the Canon EOS Rebel T7i is that it is weather-proof, and so tailored for outdoor photography. In addition, it has a feature called pixel shift resolution that can help take sharper images over long exposures.
Full Frame vs APS-C for Astrophotography
From our research, we found out that 84% of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year finalists’ photos were taken with full-frame cameras:
2. Full-frame DSLR or mirrorless cameras
Full-frame mirrorless and DSLR cameras are the top tier and are preferred by professional photographers and serious hobbyists.
You should expect to pay something in the range of $1000 to $2500 for a new full-frame model (but you can find cheaper if buying used – check the KEH price in the links below).
For what we are discussing – astrophotography and capturing the night sky – full-frame sensor cameras will generally perform much better than crop sensor (APS-C) cameras for landscape astrophotography.
In particular, they work better when using high ISO settings – which are needed to compensate for low levels of light.
In comparison at similar ISO levels, images from APS-C cameras will suffer from greater “noise” – which is a sort of graining on the image – and therefore less crisp, clear photos of the night sky.
The full-frame also gives you a wider field of view. This is essential for landscape astrophotography and our research shows that 14mm is the ideal lens focal length for these images. APS-C cameras crop this framing and effectively make it 21mm. Therefore to get suitable wide-field images with a crop sensor camera you would need to use lenses with even shorter focal lengths, which reduces your lens options.
Examples of full-frame cameras which are good for astro imaging are those models we feature above which are the best overall.
DSLR vs Mirrorless for Astrophotography
Using our data set, we can see that – if we take just images taken with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras – 75% of the finalists’ images for Astronomy Photographer of the Year in the past two years have been taken with DSLRs, versus 25% with mirrorless cameras:
DSLRs have been the most popular camera type for photographers in the past decade or so, but mirrorless cameras are growing in popularity.
Previously, mirrorless cameras were more expensive but technological advances have been bringing down their prices in recent years.
Mirrorless cameras do not have an optical mirror like a DSLR (hence the name) and tend to be smaller and lighter. They feature an electronic viewfinder that displays what the camera image sensor sees, which can be a real bonus when composing shots and focusing on objects in the night sky. Like DSLRs, mirrorless cameras can be used with interchangeable lenses.
On the other hand, DSLRs tend to have better autofocus capabilities, better battery life, and work with a larger range of lenses.
The quick answer is that neither DSLR or mirrorless is “better” for astrophotography. There are great DSLRs (like those featured above), but they are now being rivaled in both performance and price by mirrorless cameras.
3. Astro-modified DSLRs or mirrorless cameras
There is also a further category of DSLR/mirrorless camera, which is one that has been specifically modified for astrophotography – and for photographing deep sky objects in particular.
Essentially, the sensors in regular cameras are not ideal for capturing the light emitted by nebulae and galaxies as they filter out a certain color.
What can be done is that the sensor can be altered to improve performance in this area. You can manually do this to the sensor of a regular DSLR/mirrorless camera (either by yourself – which carries a fairly significant risk – or by paying a professional), or you can buy pre-modified ones.
In addition, you should know that that the camera will not perform as well when used for regular photography after the modification. Therefore in getting an astro-modified camera you are getting it solely for use in astrophotography.
Canon EOS Ra
The Canon EOS Ra has these astro modifications in-built and is the first specialist mirrorless astrophotography camera. It was newly released at the end of 2019 but discontinued in 2021.
The Canon EOS Ra is a modified version of the Canon EOS R – the full-frame mirrorless camera released in late-2018 (the “a” in the name is for “astrophotography”).
The modifications mean that the camera works much better for deep-sky photography – i.e. capturing nebulae and other far-off objects. This is because the filters used on regular DSLRs and mirrorless cameras do not capture the deep red hydrogen-alpha light emitted by these objects. With the Canon EOS Ra, this has been modified so that this light is not filtered out.
This is much like in specialist astrophotography DSLRs of the past – the Canon 60Da and the Nikon D810a – which are also discontinued and are very hard to find.
This is a great camera for astrophotography overall but in comparison to the Canon 6D and Nikon D750 there are some downsides:
- It is more expensive (click the link below to check the live prices), and as it is relatively new it is hard to find pre-used models for sale
- The modifications that make it better for astrophotography conversely degrade the performance for other types photography. This means that it is not a great all-round camera for everyday use. This probably means you will need a second camera for everyday photography (which may be fine for you, but bear it in mind before shelling out your dollars).
Modifying a DSLR for astrophotography
You can modify any DSLR or mirrorless camera for astrophotography – either by yourself at your risk following a video on YouTube, or by using a service like Life Pixel who can do it for you.
It will then solely be used for astro imaging and so you will likely need to have another camera for other photography.
If you want to read more about modifying cameras for astrophotography, see our article on astro modified cameras and how to get one.
4. Dedicated astronomy cameras (CCD or CMOS)
Lastly, you can also use specialist CCD cameras or CMOS cameras for astrophotography.
These are webcam-like objects that are attached to telescopes and are controlled via a separate laptop or similar. These are generally for advanced deep sky or planetary imaging.
Our research indicates that:
How to choose the best astrophotography camera for you
To make your choice of what camera is best for you, there are really two main things to consider:
- What are you planning to photograph, and
- How serious you are about it (including how much you want to spend).
Generally, if you are looking for a first camera just to dabble with capturing the night sky along with other photography, then an entry-level DSLR will be perfect.
If you are a bit more ambitious with your astrophotography and want picture-perfect images of the Milky Way etc, then a full-frame camera will probably suit you.
Other than its capacity to take great images, some great added extras to look for in a camera for astrophotography are:
- A tilting screen: This is because you might have to have your camera as weird angles or heights at times and being able to tilt the screen can make it a lot easier to operate the camera.
- A screen capable of ‘live-view’: Using a live view screen is one of the best ways to help you get sharply focused on the stars you are shooting.
- A light weight: This will reduce the burden if taking on trips and on the payload capacity of your star tracker, if using one.
- Weather-proofing: For night sky photography you often have to stay out for hours in areas where the weather may be unpredictable. This just might extend the life of your camera and save your shots.
Note that compact cameras or bridge cameras will generally not be suitable for astrophotography as they don’t give enough manual control over the settings and will not allow interchangeable lenses.
Lastly, if you are a serious astrophotographer and want to capture deep-sky objects, then you could look at a dedicated astronomy camera, but bear in mind that these will be good only for this and not any other photography and also require quality astrophotography telescopes and mounts, amongst other accessories.
Final word – What do you think is the best camera for astrophotography in 2021?
We hope you found this article useful and that it provided something different from other things you may have read.
The data from astrophotography competitions hopefully helps shed some light on which cameras are being successfully used (and that they are not necessarily the most expensive models).
In summary, from our data we believe that:
- The Canon EOS 6D Mark II is the best Canon for astrophotography and possibly the best overall DSLR/Mirrorless camera for astrophotography given its track record for sucess. It’s also great value at current prices.
- The Nikon D750 is the best Nikon for astrophotography and similarly great value to the Canon 6D above.
- The Sony A7R III is the best mirrorless camera for astrophotography and the best Sony for astrophotography.
- The ZWO ASI1600MM Pro is the best dedicated astronomy camera for deep-sky photography.
- The ZWO ASI174MM is the best dedicated astronomy camera for planetary photography.
I personally use a Nikon D750 that I picked up used specifically for astrophotography:
I think the findings above show that it is a camera that can deliver whilst also being substantially cheaper than newer models available.
Over to you, what do you think?