Best Planetary, Lunar & Solar Cameras (2022 Data Comparison)

We analyzed all images in the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition to find the best planetary cameras:

Best planetary cameras
(Percentage of all planetary images)

We found that the ZWO ASI174MM was the most successful planetary camera.

Other dedicated planetary cameras also feature highly, so here we examine the key differences between them, as well as break down the best solar and lunar imaging cameras.

Read on to see our full results analysis, to understand more about the differences between planetary cameras, and how to choose what is right for you.

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Best Planetary Cameras

The Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest is the world’s most prestigious astrophotography competition. Every year hundreds of images are shortlisted and details of what cameras were used to take the photo are shared which we can examine.

In the past three years, there have been a total of 114 planetary images shortlisted to look at (including planetary, lunar, and solar).

From this data, we can see that ZWO is by far the most successful brand for planetary cameras with 43% of all shortlisted planetary images using their models:

best planetary cameras brands
(Percentage of all planetary images)

ZWO and FLIR make dedicated CMOS astronomy cameras. These are different from regular DSLR or mirrorless cameras in that they are specifically for astrophotography use with a telescope and can’t be used for regular, handheld photography.

However, the second, third, and fifth brands respectively are Canon, Nikon, and Sony, showing that planetary imaging can be done with conventional DSLR or mirrorless cameras.

In addition, Apple is on the list because of images taken with iPhones or iPads, showing that you can get results even with the most basic photography gear if you are creative.

Let’s now look at the most successful individual camera models.

Best Monochrome Planetary Cameras

In the chart at the top of this article, you can see the list of the most successfully used camera models for planetary imaging in this astrophotography competition.

Our results show that the ZWO ASI174MM is the top planetary camera:

ZWO ASI174MM 2.3 MP CMOS Monochrome Astronomy Camera with USB 3.0# ASI174MM
ZWO ASI174MM

This is an uncooled, monochrome CMOS camera that is tailored for planetary imaging.

It can be used for solar, lunar, and planetary photography. It can also be used for some deep-sky imaging, although it is not ideal for that.

What you need in a dedicated planetary camera is a fast frame rate, plus a modest resolution and USB 3.0 connection so that the data transfer to your laptop/computer can handle the volume of frames being taken.

This is the key difference with deep sky cameras that take fewer, longer exposures at higher resolutions, and need cooling to reduce noise.

Our results show that this camera delivers for planetary imaging and is relatively affordable so should make a great option for those looking for a good planetary camera.

With monochrome cameras, you need to use filters to take multiple captures to compose a color image.

The key specifications are:

  • Type: CMOS
  • Color/Mono: Monochrome
  • Cooled/Uncooled: Uncooled
  • Resolution: 2.3MP
  • Frame Rate: 164fps (full resolution)
  • Pixel Size: 5.86 microns
  • USB: USB 3.0

There are two other uncooled, monochrome ZWO CMOS models in the top four of our results. We examine here the key differences between these three models:

ZWO ASI174MM vs ZWO ASI290MM vs ZWO ASI178MM

It’s notable that the first, second, and fourth most successful planetary cameras in our results are ZWO models.

In fact, they are all uncooled, monochrome CMOS ZWO cameras with USB 3.0. So what’s the difference between these three models?

  • The ZWO ASI178MM has a higher resolution (6.4MP) and slower full resolution frame rate (60 fps) and smaller pixel size (2.4 microns). This means it occupies something of a middle-ground – being slightly less optimized specifically for planetary imaging, but slightly better for deep sky. It is also generally a bit cheaper than the ZWO ASI174MM, making it a great budget all-rounder.
  • The ZWO ASI290MM is also cheaper and has a 2.1MP resolution and a full-resolution frame rate of 170 fps, making it very similar to the ZWO ASI174MM. It does have a smaller pixel size of 2.9 microns, but this a great budget planetary camera option.

So, in summary, the:

  • ZWO ASI174MM performs best in our results for planetary cameras, but
  • ZWO ASI178MM is great for those that also want to dabble in deep-sky imaging as well as planetary, and want a budget option, and
  • ZWO ASI290MM is a great budget alternative specifically for planetary.
Preview
Best Overall
ZWO ASI174MM 2.3 MP CMOS Monochrome Astronomy Camera with USB 3.0# ASI174MM
Best Budget
ZWO ASI-290MM (Mono) USB 3.0 Astronomy Camera
Best Planetary/DSO
ZWO ASI178MM (Mono) Astronomy Camera
Make & Model
ZWO ASI174MM
ZWO ASI290MM
ZWO ASI178MM
Type
CMOS
CMOS
CMOS
Color/Mono
Monochrome
Monochrome
Monochrome
Cooled/Uncooled
Uncooled
Uncooled
Uncooled
Resolution
2.4MP
2.1MP
6.4MP
Frame Rate (full res.)
128fps
170fps
60fps
Max. Frame Rate
577fps
170fps
479.7fps
Read Noise
6e
3.2e
2.2e
Quantum Efficiency
77%
80%
81%
Pixel Size
5.86 microns
2.9 microns
2.4 microns
Best Overall
Preview
ZWO ASI174MM 2.3 MP CMOS Monochrome Astronomy Camera with USB 3.0# ASI174MM
Make & Model
ZWO ASI174MM
Type
CMOS
Color/Mono
Monochrome
Cooled/Uncooled
Uncooled
Resolution
2.4MP
Frame Rate (full res.)
128fps
Max. Frame Rate
577fps
Read Noise
6e
Quantum Efficiency
77%
Pixel Size
5.86 microns
Check Prices
Best Budget
Preview
ZWO ASI-290MM (Mono) USB 3.0 Astronomy Camera
Make & Model
ZWO ASI290MM
Type
CMOS
Color/Mono
Monochrome
Cooled/Uncooled
Uncooled
Resolution
2.1MP
Frame Rate (full res.)
170fps
Max. Frame Rate
170fps
Read Noise
3.2e
Quantum Efficiency
80%
Pixel Size
2.9 microns
Check Prices
Best Planetary/DSO
Preview
ZWO ASI178MM (Mono) Astronomy Camera
Make & Model
ZWO ASI178MM
Type
CMOS
Color/Mono
Monochrome
Cooled/Uncooled
Uncooled
Resolution
6.4MP
Frame Rate (full res.)
60fps
Max. Frame Rate
479.7fps
Read Noise
2.2e
Quantum Efficiency
81%
Pixel Size
2.4 microns
Check Prices

Last update on 2022-05-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Best Color Planetary Cameras

The above models are all monochrome cameras. The advantage of these is that they can capture more detail in their images, but the downside is that to produce a full color photo you need to take multiple images using different filters and then combine them in post-processing.

This has the potential for better imaging results but is more work and complexity, as well as cost due to the additional filters and filter wheel that need to be used.

Color planetary cameras, on the other hand, can capture a full color image in one shot without the need to use external filters. They are therefore much easier to work with.

The top color planetary cameras in our results are all uncooled, color CMOS models from ZWO:

  1. ZWO ASI120MC – this is the cheapest and makes a great budget solar camera
  2. ZWO ASI178MC – this is the highest resolution option
  3. ZWO ASI224MC – this has a similar resolution to the ASI120MC but has a fast frame rate
Preview
Best Budget
ZWO ASI120MC 1.2 MP CMOS Color Astronomy Camera with USB 2.0 - ASI120MC
High Resolution
ZWO ASI178MC 6.4 MP CMOS Color Astronomy Camera with USB 3.0# ASI178MC
Mid-range
ZWO ASI224MC 1.2 MP CMOS Color Astronomy Camera with USB 3.0 # ASI224MC
Make & Model
ZWO ASI120MC
ZWO ASI178MC
ZWO ASI224MC
Type
CMOS
CMOS
CMOS
Color/Mono
Color
Color
Color
Cooled/Uncooled
Uncooled
Uncooled
Uncooled
Resolution
1.2MP
6.4MP
1.3MP
Frame Rate (full res.)
60fps
60fps
150fps
Max. Frame Rate
254fps
479.7fps
577.9fps
Read Noise
6.6e
2.2e
3.1e
Quantum Efficiency
68%
TBD
75%
Pixel Size
3.75 microns
2.4 microns
3.75 microns
Best Budget
Preview
ZWO ASI120MC 1.2 MP CMOS Color Astronomy Camera with USB 2.0 - ASI120MC
Make & Model
ZWO ASI120MC
Type
CMOS
Color/Mono
Color
Cooled/Uncooled
Uncooled
Resolution
1.2MP
Frame Rate (full res.)
60fps
Max. Frame Rate
254fps
Read Noise
6.6e
Quantum Efficiency
68%
Pixel Size
3.75 microns
Check Prices
High Resolution
Preview
ZWO ASI178MC 6.4 MP CMOS Color Astronomy Camera with USB 3.0# ASI178MC
Make & Model
ZWO ASI178MC
Type
CMOS
Color/Mono
Color
Cooled/Uncooled
Uncooled
Resolution
6.4MP
Frame Rate (full res.)
60fps
Max. Frame Rate
479.7fps
Read Noise
2.2e
Quantum Efficiency
TBD
Pixel Size
2.4 microns
Check Prices
Mid-range
Preview
ZWO ASI224MC 1.2 MP CMOS Color Astronomy Camera with USB 3.0 # ASI224MC
Make & Model
ZWO ASI224MC
Type
CMOS
Color/Mono
Color
Cooled/Uncooled
Uncooled
Resolution
1.3MP
Frame Rate (full res.)
150fps
Max. Frame Rate
577.9fps
Read Noise
3.1e
Quantum Efficiency
75%
Pixel Size
3.75 microns
Check Prices

Last update on 2022-05-23 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

Best Solar Imaging Cameras

When we look at the data for just solar imaging, we see that the Flir Grasshopper GS3-U3-23S6M-C camera is first, followed by the ZWO ASI174MM and ZWO ASI178MM (both covered above):

best solar imaging camera
(Percentage of all solar images)

The FLIR Grasshopper GS3-U3-23S6M-C is an uncooled monochrome CMOS camera that has the Sony IMX174 sensor like the ZWO ASI174MM, and its key specifications are virtually identical:

  • Type: CMOS
  • Color/Mono: Monochrome
  • Cooled/Uncooled: Uncooled
  • Resolution: 2.3MP
  • Frame Rate: 163fps (full resolution)
  • Pixel Size: 5.86 microns
  • USB: USB 3.0

It is substantially more expensive though, but our results show it delivers for solar imaging.

Best Lunar Imaging Camera

When we look at the best lunar imaging cameras, we see the ZWO ASI174MM first, followed by the ZWO ASI178MM, and the color ZWO ASI178MC:

Best Lunar Imaging Camera
(Percentage of all lunar images)

FAQs

What are planetary cameras?

Planetary cameras are dedicated astronomy cameras for taking photos of the planets, sun, and moon of our solar system with a telescope.

Which camera is best for planets?

The ZWO ASI174MM is the best planetary camera, as indicated by our research.

How do I choose a camera for planetary imaging?

There are a few ways:

  1. You could use what you already have even if it is not the ideal planetary camera. For example, you can use a DSLR or mirrorless camera if you have one.
  2. You can use our findings to see what cameras are being successfully used by the best astrophotographers today
  3. You can use tools like this field of view calculator to input your telescope and prospective camera to see what images you could expect
Jupiter with a Celestron C11 and ZWO ASI174MM

Another thing to factor in is the other gear that you will be using. In particular, your telescope’s focal ratio and whether you will use a barlow lens.

There is a recommended formula for this:

  • Barlow magnification x telescope focal ratio / 6 = approximate ideal camera pixel size

Therefore:

  • A 3X barlow lens with a Celestron C11 F/10 OTA = 30. Divided by 6 = 5. Therefore a camera with around 5 microns pixel size is right. The ZWO ASI174MM would then be a good fit.

Since the most successful planetary telescopes are Celestron SCTs (see below) and these have F/10 focal ratios you can also work out what camera pixel size and barlow combination is right for you. For example:

  • F/10 OTA with 2X Barlow = 3.3 microns
  • F/10 OTA with 3X Barlow = 5 microns
  • F/10 OTA with 4X Barlow = 6.7 microns
  • F/10 OTA with 5X Barlow = 8.3 microns

These calculations should be taken as just a rough guide, as other things like the seeing conditions in your area are also a factor.

Other key characteristics to look for in a planetary camera are a high frame rate and fast USB 3.0 data transfer. Color vs monochrome is a choice: color is easiest, but monochrome has higher potential.

What telescopes are used for planetary imaging?

Our results show that planetary imaging is most commonly done with telescopes from:

The most successful models are from Celestron’s Schmidt-Cassegrain range, with the highest being:

  1. C11 (12%)
  2. C14 (11%)
  3. C8 (7%)
(Percentage of planetary images)

For more insight, see the Best Telescopes for Astrophotography.

What telescope mounts are used for planetary imaging?

Our results show that planetary imaging is most commonly done with telescope mounts from Celestron (25%) and Sky-Watcher (29%) again.

The most successful model is the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro.

For more on this, see our article on the Best Astrophotography Mounts.

What’s the best Celestron planetary camera?

The Celestron NexImage 10 is the best Celestron planetary camera.

It is the only model in Celestron’s NexImage range that has USB 3.0 for fast data transfer.

Planetary cameras vs DSLRs – what are the pros and cons?

Both DSLRs and dedicated astronomy cameras can be used for planetary imaging.

The advantage of DSLR (or mirrorless) cameras is their versatility which makes them suitable for all kinds of photography.

The advantage of a dedicated planetary camera is that it has been created specifically for that purpose and will be capable of a much higher standard of imaging.

What is the best camera for astrophotography?

The Canon EOS 6D is the best overall camera for astrophotography according to our research.

If you want to read more about this, see our article on the Best Cameras for Astrophotography.

What’s the best CCD planetary camera?

CCD cameras tend to be higher resolution and more suited to deep-sky imaging, with CMOS cameras being better suited to planetary imaging (as backed up by our research for this article).

To learn more about CCD cameras see our article, Best CCD and CMOS Cameras for Astrophotography.


Conclusion

Overall, based on our findings, we recommend the best planetary cameras to be:

  1. ZWO ASI174MM – overall winner for planetary, lunar, and solar.
  2. ZWO ASI290MM – a great budget alternative
  3. ZWO ASI178MM – a great option for those that also want to dabble in deep-sky imaging

These are all monochrome models. If you would prefer to go for a color camera, then we recommend:

  1. ZWO ASI120MC – best budget color planetary camera
  2. ZWO ASI178MC – highest resolution color planetary camera
  3. ZWO ASI224MC – fast frame rate color planetary camera

All this should be considered alongside what telescope you will be using to get the best results.

Please let us know if you have any comments or questions in the comments below.

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