We analyzed all images in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition to find the best CCD and CMOS cameras for astrophotography:
You can see above the top five cameras used in 165 planetary and deep space images shortlisted in the last three years.
Read on for:
- Further insight into this data
- The pros and cons of these most successful camera models
- All you need to know about CCD and CMOS cameras for astrophotography
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The Best CCD and CMOS Astronomical Cameras
Best CMOS Planetary Camera
As you can see in the chart above, the ZWO ASI174MM is the most successful of any CCD or CMOS dedicated astronomy camera in the past three years of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.
13% of all shortlisted images using a CCD or CMOS camera in the competition were taken with this camera which provides pretty conclusive evidence that it can deliver.
It is particularly dominant as a planetary camera – if we look at the data for just planetary images (including lunar and solar) we see that nearly one-third of those shortlisted were taken with this camera:
It is an uncooled CMOS monochrome astronomy camera with the Sony IMX174 sensor and a resolution of 2.3MP (1936×1216).
It can take 164 frames-per-second (fps) at its full resolution of 1936×1216. This frame rate can be increased to up to 397 fps at a lower resolution.
As with any monochrome astronomy camera, to produce color images it needs to be used with a filter wheel and a set of LRGB color filters. You can buy these separately or you can get the camera as a package with a manual filter wheel or an electronic filter wheel.
Whilst it excels for planetary, it can also be used for deep space astrophotography imaging, however, it will not perform as well as a cooled higher-resolution camera like the ZWO ASI1600MM Pro or a premium CCD model. There was previously an ASI174MM-Cool, but it has been discontinued.
This video from OPT gives a good high-level overview of the camera:
You can also see some of the excellent planetary images produced with this camera on Astrobin here.
Overall, the ASI174MM provides excellent performance for planetary photography and is extremely good value for money. This makes it a great option for amateur imagers to incorporate into their astrophotography setup.
It is also one of the best cameras for lunar and solar (H-Alpha) imaging, and can be used as a guide camera.
- Type: CMOS
- Sensor: Sony IMX174
- Specialization: Planetary, Lunar, Solar (with an additional solar filter)
- Resolution: 2.3MP
- Pixel Array: 1936 x 1216
- Pixel Size: 5.86 microns
- Full Resolution Frame Rate: 164 fps
- Color/Mono: Monochrome
- Cooled/Uncooled: Uncooled
- Quantum Efficiency (QE): 77%
- Read Noise: 6E
- Full Well: 32ke
ASI174MM vs Mini
The main difference is that the standard version uses USB 3.0, whereas the Mini version has a slower USB 2.0 port. This means that the standard model is a better imaging camera as it can transfer data much quicker.
The Mini version is therefore primarily a guide camera, although can be used for planetary imaging.
Best DSO Camera
The ZWO ASI160MM Pro is the second most successful of any CCD or CMOS dedicated astronomy camera in the past three years of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.
As you can see in the chart at the top of this article, it was used in 10% of all CCD/CMOS shortlisted images.
When we filter the data for just deep sky images it is the best camera for deep space astrophotography by some distance:
It is a cooled CMOS camera with 16MP resolution.
The high resolution is great for photography galaxies and nebulae, and the cooling makes it much better for deep sky object imaging as it reduces noise.
Its full resolution frame rate is 23 fps, and this can increase to 192 fps at a smaller resolution.
As a monochrome camera, it needs to be used with a filter wheel and LRGB color filters to create color images. It can be bought as a package with this included.
You can watch a one minute overview of the features of this camera in this video:
You can also see some of the stunning DSO images produced with this camera on Astrobin here.
ZWO ASI1600MM Pro Review
Overall, this is a great value deep-sky object camera that can clearly deliver as you can see from its performance in our research.
You can get better cameras for deep sky images (like a cooled CCD model) but they cost substantially more and so the ZWO ASI160MM Pro will provide the right balance of price to performance for many.
- Type: CMOS
- Sensor: Panasonic MN34230
- Specialization: Deep Sky Objects
- Resolution: 16MP
- Pixel Array: 4656 x 3520
- Pixel Size: 3.8 microns
- Full Resolution Frame Rate: 23 fps
- Color/Mono: Monochrome
- Cooled/Uncooled: Cooled
- Quantum Efficiency (QE): 60%
- Read Noise: 1.2E
- Full Well: 20ke
Best Budget CMOS Astrophotography Camera
From the charts above you can see that the ZWO ASI290MM is the third most successful CCD/CMOS camera overall and the second-best for planetary.
The bonus is that it is very cheap, making it the best budget planetary camera.
It is an uncooled monochrome CMOS camera with a 2.1MP resolution.
This is a perfect option for a beginner looking for their first dedicated astronomy camera. It is inexpensive, yet is shown by our findings to perform extremely well for planetary and lunar imaging.
As you progress in your astrophotography, you have the option to then use this as a guide camera and then invest in a separate higher-spec camera to take your imaging to the next level.
- Type: CMOS
- Sensor: Sony IMX290LQR
- Specialization: Planetary, Lunar
- Resolution: 2.1MP
- Pixel Array: 1936 x 1096
- Pixel Size: 2.9 microns
- Full Resolution Frame Rate: 170 fps
- Color/Mono: Monochrome
- Cooled/Uncooled: Uncooled
- Quantum Efficiency (QE): 80%
- Read Noise: 3.2e
- Full Well: 14.6ke
ASI290MM Mini and ASI290MC
You can also buy two other versions of this camera:
The Mini version has a slower frame rate and is primarily a guide camera, although can be used for planetary imaging.
The MC version is the color model. See below for more information on the pros and cons of color vs monochrome cameras.
Best Color CMOS Astrophotography Camera
Our research indicates that the ZWO ASI178MC is the best color CMOS camera.
Color astronomy cameras are simpler and cheaper to use than monochrome cameras because:
- They can capture a full color image in one shot, whereas monochrome cameras require multiple shots using different filters.
- This filtering requires additional components that increase the cost.
The downside of color CMOS cameras is that they will capture less data than monochrome ones and so have more limited imaging capacity.
For beginners especially, a color CMOS model makes a lot of sense as your first dedicated astronomy camera to use with your telescope, since it is so much easier to get to grips with. You then have the option of upgrading to a monochrome camera with filters later as your imaging skills progress.
This is an uncooled camera with 6.4MP resolution that works best for planetary imaging as utilizes USB 3.0 and is good for fast frame rate imaging.
It can also be used for deep sky photography and it features an autoguider port so that it also can be used as a guide camera if you upgrade to a separate higher-spec camera later.
You can see images produced with this camera here.
- Type: CMOS
- Sensor: Sony IMX178
- Specialization: Planetary, Lunar, Solar
- Resolution: 6.4MP
- Pixel Array: 3096 x 2080
- Pixel Size: 2.4 microns
- Full Resolution Frame Rate: 479.7 fps
- Color/Mono: Color
- Cooled/Uncooled: Uncooled
- Quantum Efficiency (QE): %
- Read Noise: 2.2e
- Full Well: 25ke
Data: Best CCD and CMOS Cameras for Astrophotography
So, how did we get the information on which we have made these recommendations?
The Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest is the leading astrophotography competition in the world. Each year 100+ images are shortlisted with a smaller selection being named as winners in different categories.
The information about the equipment used in each photo is shared and so we brought this information together to see what the most successfully used gear has been.
You can see the full research in our article Astronomy Photographer of the Year: Winning Gear Analysis which also includes telescopes and mounts, but here, we focus on dedicated astronomy cameras.
Overall, there have been 376 images shortlisted in the competition in the past three years. When we take out landscape astrophotography images taken with DSLR/mirrorless cameras, we have 165 images taken with CCD or CMOS cameras.
This is then split very closely between CCD and CMOS cameras:
And, of all the shortlisted images taken with CCD or CMOS cameras, more are of deep sky objects than of planetary objects:
Best CCD and CMOS Camera Manufacturers
If we look at the most successful manufacturers, we see that ZWO is dominant:
These results reflect the availability and affordability of cameras as well as performance.
Best CCD and CMOS Camera Models
Now we can look at the top 20 most used CCD or CMOS camera models in the competition:
You can see that the three ZWO monochrome cameras featured above make up the top three most used.
When we move down the list we come across some premium astronomical cameras for advanced deep-sky imaging:
- SBIG STXL-11002: The second most successful camera for deep space astrophotography in our research. This model has been discontinued and the best equivalent available today is the SBIG Aluma AC4040. This is an advanced cooled monochrome CMOS camera with 16.8MP resolution.
- QSI 683WSG-8: The third most successful dso camera and sixth overall. This is a cooled monochrome CCD camera with 8.4MP resolution.
- FLIR Grasshopper: The fourth most successful camera overall and in third place for planetary imaging. This is an uncooled monochrome CMOS camera that has the Sony IMX174 sensor (like the ZWO ASI174MM).
FAQs: CCD and CMOS Astronomical Cameras
CCD vs CMOS for Astrophotography: What’s the difference?
For the most part, it doesn’t really matter whether your camera has a CMOS or CCD sensor for astrophotography.
CCDs used to be significantly better for astrophotography but CMOS sensors have caught up in recent years as camera manufacturers have focused on making them better.
From our astrophotography competition analysis, we can see that CCD cameras are more successful for deep sky imaging:
Whilst CMOS cameras were used more often for planetary imaging:
For the most part, amateur astrophotographers will generally use CMOS cameras. CCD cameras these days are more for observatories or for institutions like universities making scientific measurements and having bigger budgets.
Color vs Monochrome CCD/CMOS Cameras: Pros and Cons
CCD or CMOS cameras can be color or monochrome, each has its pros and cons:
- The advantage of color cameras is that you can get a full color image in a single exposure. However, the in-built color filtering limits the capacity of the camera’s sensor. This results in less data captured.
- The advantage of monochrome cameras is that they use the full capacity of the sensor to capture light as there is no in-built color filtering. The downside is that to get color images you need to use additional color filters with filter wheels controlled via computer to take multiple shots to then combine them in post-processing. This is more work and costs more to buy the additional components.
Overall, using a monochrome camera is more time-consuming, difficult, and expensive, but has much higher potential for producing great images. These are right for advanced imagers that want to put in the effort in capturing and processing images.
Color cameras are much quicker and simpler, but the images produced will be limited. This can be perfect for beginners though who are looking to do their first imaging with a dedicated astronomy camera.
You can see from our astrophotography competition analysis that the top cameras used are monochrome (indicted by “MM” in ZWO cameras). But there are color cameras in the list (see the ZWO models with an “MC” in the name) with the top two being:
Cooled vs Uncooled Astrophotography Cameras: Pros and Cons
The advantage of cooled cameras is that they reduce noise in images. This is especially important for long exposure deep sky imaging.
The downside is that they cost more and need their own power source and so need to be plugged in somewhere.
Uncooled cameras are cheaper and are perfect for planetary imaging, but less optimized for DSO imaging.
CCD/CMOS Camera Specifications: What Do They Mean?
Aside from CCD vs CMOS, cooled vs uncooled, and color vs monochrome, there are a number of specifications that give you insight into any camera model. These include:
- Resolution: The size of the images produced by the camera in megapixels (MP).
- Pixel Array: Another way of expressing the resolution with a width and height pixel measurement.
- Sensor size: Categories of sensor types, with the most common being micro four-thirds, APS-C, and full frame. Full frame is the biggest and best for deep sky imaging as it means more pixels and a wider field of view. Smaller sensors can be better for planetary photography as you want a narrower field of view, plus a larger image size slows your capture speed (and also fills up your computer’s hard drive).
- Pixel Size: The physical size of the pixels on the sensor measured in microns (µ). Higher is better for deep sky astrophotography as it indicates more light will be gathered per pixel, however, this also means lower resolution. For planetary imaging, smaller pixel size is usually better.
- Frame Rate: How many frames per second (fps) a camera can capture, also sometimes called capture speed. For deep-sky imaging, this is less important as exposures are usually fewer but longer. But planetary photography requires many shorter exposures and the higher the fps the better.
- Quantum Efficiency (QE): A measure of how efficient a sensor is at capturing light and converting it into an image. The higher the QE figure the better it is – especially for deep sky astrophotography. It is less important for planetary imaging.
- Read Noise: The lower this is the better. It is a measurement (in electrons per pixel) of the noise generated by the camera when imaging.
- Full Well Depth: How much light each pixel can absorb (measured in electrons). The higher the full well capacity the better as it means that you can expose for longer before losing detail.
- Bit Depth: The range of luminance values that each pixel can record – the higher this is, the better.
- Sensor Illumination: Sensors can be front-side or back-side illuminated. Back-side illuminated (BSI) sensors are generally better as they have a higher quantum efficiency.
- Sensor Diagonal: The distance from the opposite corners of a sensor. This tells you what image circle you need your telescope to support and the filter size you should use.
- USB: USB 3.0 is better than USB 2.0 as it means that imaging data can be transferred faster between camera and computer, especially if doing fast frame rate planetary imaging.
This video presents a good overview of the most important specifications to look out for and what they mean:
DSLR vs CCD/CMOS Astrophotography Cameras: Pros and Cons
The main advantage of using a DSLR (or mirrorless) camera for astrophotography is versatility. You may already own one and it can deliver for deep sky, planetary, and landscape astrophotography, as well as for all your daytime photography.
However, dedicated CCD and CMOS astronomy cameras are specifically designed for the task of low light imaging and will outperform DSLRs and mirrorless cameras for planetary and deep-sky imaging with a telescope.
Dedicated astronomy cameras are also smaller and lighter, but do not have a screen to preview your images like DSLRs, or a built-in battery, so they need their own power source.
If you want a DSLR or mirrorless model for landscape astrophotography, see our article on the Best Cameras for Astrophotography.
What’s The Best Telescope To Use With CCD/CMOS Cameras?
CCD and CMOS astronomical cameras need to be used with the right telescopes and mounts to get results.
See the best telescopes for astrophotography, the Best Telescopes for Deep Space Astrophotography, the Best Telescopes For Planetary Imaging, and the best mounts for astrophotography for more information and recommendations.
Conclusion: Best CCD and CMOS Cameras for Astrophotography
Last update on 2023-01-26 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
It can be extremely hard trying to work out what dedicated astronomy camera is right for you given the obscure model names and complex specifications. That’s why we believe our analysis cuts through this and shows you the models that are being used most successfully at the highest level.
Overall, we recommend these monochrome cameras:
- ZWO ASI174MM for planetary imaging
- ZWO ASI160MM Pro for dso imaging
- ZWO ASI290MM as the best budget option
Finally, if you are an experienced imager or institution, then you could look at the most successful advanced CCD cameras:
Please let us know your comments, questions, and recommendations in the comments below.