If you’re planning to shoot the night skies, you’ll need the best camera for astrophotography and night photography. Tim Coleman and the AP team make some picks.
Finding the best camera for astrophotography can be a complex matter. Night-sky photography is a tricky discipline. It requires a lot of standing around in cold fields late into the night, not to mention precise exposure calculation and a fair amount of post-capture editing. It’s a fair bit more complicated than pointing and shooting, that’s for sure.
However, if you have the patience, the rewards for astrophotography can be nothing short of spectacular. Using a camera to document the splendour of the night sky is incredibly rewarding, not to mention addictive. In this guide, we’ll help you find the camera that will allow you to get started shooting the stars.
We have a complete essential guide to astrophotography and night photography, if you would like to know more of the ins and outs of how it works – whereas here, we are focusing on cameras. First up, let’s look at the key factors when choosing a camera for astrophotography.
How to choose the best camera for astrophotography
Ideally, your camera in hand will be weather-sealed, easy to navigate in the dark and even operate with gloved hands. Some high-end cameras feature illuminated buttons which can prove useful, but more importantly you’ll need a way to obtain sharp focusing.
Autofocus is less helpful for astrophotography and most well-practiced astrophotographers use manual focus with live view magnification to be sure, edging a fraction close than infinity to get those white blobs in the sky as small (sharp) as possible. However, there are some cameras that make this easier for you, so have a look at cameras with Starry Sky AF.
You’ll want to attach a fast aperture, wide-angle lens to the camera in order to maximise image brightness and capture the night sky in its glory, plus shoot at a relatively high ISO and ideally in RAW format. A full-frame camera will, in general, perform better in low light than APS-C and Micro Four Thirds cameras, plus there are more full-frame wide angle lenses to choose from than APS-C ones. For additional suggestions, take a read of our guide to the best lenses for astrophotography.
Otherwise, there’s a balance to strike between high-resolution for large-scale pictures, and lower resolution for superior low-light image quality – a general rule of thumb for cameras of a similar age. A resolution in the region of 20-30MP is extremely popular.
DSLRs remain the most popular camera type for astrophotography, though mirrorless cameras do have a few advantageous features, which we’ll cover in detail below. Along these lines, we’ve put together the best cameras from the big brands for astrophotography, including budget second-hand options and some with some dedicated astrophotography features that you may well have never heard of before.
Still trying to decide between DSLR and mirrorless? Have a look at our guide to DSLR vs Mirrorless.
If you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick list of our picks of the best astrophotography cameras, as well as links for where the get a great price on each one:
Read on to find out more about each camera in our full list…
Our picks of the best cameras for astrophotography:
Best Pentax camera for astrophotography: Pentax K-1 II
At a glance
Everything about the Pentax K1-II is perfectly suited to low light workings. It’s a rugged, weather-resistant DSLR with vari-angle screen and illuminated buttons. It’s also a high-resolution 36.4MP full-frame stills-shooter boasting excellent dynamic range and low light performance. But there’s more to the K-1 II that makes it a top choice for astrophotography.
Pentax ingeniously paired sensor-based shake reduction and GPS to create a feature it calls Astrotracer. Astrotracer utilises GPS data to match the position of the stars in the sky and shift the camera sensor to counter for the Earth’s rotation accordingly, and therefore keep those stars nice and sharp rather than trailing. Simply put, no other camera feature designed for astrophotography can maximise image brightness and clarity better than Astrotracer.
The K1-II represented a modest update from the original Pentax K-1 which will also give you everything you need for astrophotography, including Astrotracer, for half the price. If there’s one common point of weakness, it’s the limited choice of wide-angle lenses.
For more options have a look at the best Pentax DSLRs.
Best Olympus camera for astrophotography: OM System OM-1
At a glance
The flagship OM System OM-1 offers photographers the best low-light image quality capability of any Micro Four Thirds camera, and some clever features that aid astrophotography to boot. Most astrophotographers go slow and steady with manual focus and tripods, but the latest and greatest tech in the OM System OM-1 camera makes other methods possible, including Starry Sky AF.
Having made its debut in the E-M1 III, Starry Sky AF uses an algorithm to scan the scene for small points of light (the stars) to acquire focus. It’s night sky focusing made easy, and crucially we’ve found the mode entirely reliable in both speed and accuracy.
Otherwise, you have all you need for night-time adventures; an IP53-rated weather-proofed body, vari-angle touchscreen and the best image stabilisation around. And let’s not forget how much smaller and lighter the Micro Four Thirds system is compared to full-frame – those excellent wide-angle lenses come in at a fraction of the heft. Pixel peep and low light image quality won’t quite compare with full-frame cameras, though.
The OM System OM-5 also includes Starry Sky AF, and IP53 weather-sealing, so is another more-affordable option well worth looking at.
Read our OM System Olympus OM-1 review
Best Canon camera for astrophotography: Canon EOS R6
At a glance
Arriving alongside the flashy Canon EOS R5 and its 45MP sensor, the EOS R6 was pitched as more of an enthusiast all-rounder, with a more modest resolution of 20MP. This makes it an excellent choice for our purposes as astrophotographers, as we don’t have too many pixels increasing the noise on the sensor. Indeed, the EOS R6 is very good in low light, controlling noise well even at higher ISO settings. It’s comparable to two of the most all-time popular cameras for astrophotography, the Canon EOS 6D and EOS 6D Mark II DSLRs, though the EOS R6 is perhaps even better for recovering detail from shadows.
Battery life on the EOS R6 is okay-ish, CIPA-rated to 380 shots per change, though it can be USB-charged, which softens the blow somewhat. Some astrophotographers may have liked a top LCD screen to better keep an eye on battery levels, but that’s a small thing really. The RF lens-mount is expanding nicely too with impressive wide-angles like the RF 15-35mm f/2.8L IS USM. We’d like to see Canon open the mount up to third-party manufacturers, but they’re still being draconian about this for now. Ah well.
Canon has since released a successor to this camera in the form of the Canon EOS R6 Mark II, and the original R6 has been accordingly discontinued. However, the main updates in the Mark II are in its autofocus, which astro shooters don’t need to bother about too much, so we’re recommending you save yourself some cash and pick up one of the many EOS R6 cameras available on the second-hand market. Like new used examples start around £1,429, while a good condition one will cost around £1,310.
Read our Canon EOS R6 review.
Best Nikon camera for astrophotography: Nikon D780
At a glance
Replacing the D750, the Nikon D780 boasts an excellent low light performance thanks to its 24MP full-frame sensor and ISO 100-51,200 sensitivity. Nikon’s most ‘modern’ DSLR, the D780 offers clear live view on its large 3.2in tilt screen with a 23x manual focus magnification, in-camera 4K time lapse, shutter speeds up to 900 seconds and a robust interval shooting experience and exposure smoothing, ideal for creating star trails.
You also get DSLR sturdiness with weather-sealed body, excellent battery life and an optical viewfinder with 100% coverage. It’s a shame that illuminated buttons are missing since you get them on the D850, but otherwise this is a highly capable astrophotography camera benefitting from the extensive choice of Nikon F-mount lenses.
In our review, AP tester Michael Topham said ‘It’ll provide top-level service to photographers who aren’t fully enamoured by the thought of switching to mirrorless, especially those who want to continue using their F-mount lenses without an adapter and still swear by having an optical viewfinder’.
With the same sensor and many common strengths, the original mirrorless Nikon Z6 is a solid alternative for a much lower price.
Read our Nikon D780 review
Best Fujifilm camera for astrophotography: Fujifilm X-T5
At a glance
A gorgeous mirrorless camera designed for stills photographers first, the Fujifilm X-T5 offers a lot to the astrophotographer. Its on-body controls are intuitive to use, its beefy 7-stop stabilisation system impresses, and it delivers pretty impressive battery life of up to 740 shots per charge (you can of course expect this to drop a bit if you’re repeatedly shooting extra-long exposures). Image quality from the X-T5 is dazzling thanks to its 40.2MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS 5 HR sensor, which is the same model as on the more expensive Fujifilm X-H2.
Choosing a Fujifilm X body as your astrophotography camera also has a distinct advantage, namely the X-mount lens range. This is not the most expansive selection of lenses on the block, but it is absolutely stuffed with super-sharp large-aperture zooms and primes that are absolutely perfect for astro work. We recommend the XF 8-16mm f/2.8 R LM WR as a good starting point.
To read more about the finest lenses you can buy for the X-T5, check out our recently updated Best Fujifilm X-mount lenses in 2023 article.
If the X-T5 is too pricey for you, it could be worth hunting down its predecessor, the X-T4, which also has delightful on-body controls and a high-quality APS-C sensor. Its resolution and stabilisation lag behind the X-T5’s, but otherwise it’s a highly compelling alternative that could potentially be picked up at a significant discount on the used market.
Best Sony camera for astrophotography: Sony A7 IV
At a glance
Sony’s all-rounder series, the original A7 is now in its fourth iteration and the A7 IV represents a solid option for astrophotography. The 33MP full-frame sensor strikes an optimum resolution balance for large and clean night images, with an excellent dynamic range and shadow detail recovery – a key concern for dark sky snappers.
Handling wise, all boxes are ticked; there’s the 3in vari-angle screen, weather-resistance and image stabilisation. And despite its small stature, making your way around the camera in the dark is done easily enough thanks to the large controls.
If you’re priced out of the A7 IV, the A7 III can be had for about 60% of the cost, and is a decent alternative because its low light image quality is equally impressive.
Read our review of the Sony Alpha A7 IV
Best Panasonic camera for astrophotography: Panasonic Lumix S5
At a glance
If you’re starting out in astrophotography and have no ties to other camera brands, then the Panasonic Lumix S5 is worth looking into. It’s a brilliant all-rounder with very competitive price tag to boot and particularly good deals can be found. For the modest outlay you get a compact and tough full-frame mirrorless camera with excellent low light image quality.
For almost every perceived ‘flaw’, there is an answer. Battery life is OK, but the S5 can be charged via USB while in use. The EVF isn’t the best in town, but the vari-angle touch screen provides clear viewing. Lens choice is limited compared to DSLRs, but there is the wider-than-normal and affordable 20-60mm full-frame kit lens, the excellent 16-35mm F4 lens and further lens options available from Sigma and Leica. Being a Panasonic, the video features are extensive too, with a dedicated timelapse mode on the drive mode dial.
Panasonic has since released a pretty excellent update in the form of the Lumix S5 II, where the big headline addition was phase-detection autofocus, as well as unlimited video recording times. Astrophotographers can probably save themselves some cash by sticking with the original Lumix S5, whose big sensor and ISO range are more or less the same. There’s also the Lumix S5 IIX, which adds some serious video functionality to an already highly capable hybrid photography camera.
Read our Panasonic Lumix S5 review
Best camera under $1000 / £1000 for astrophotography: Pentax K-70
At a glance
Bang for buck, the Pentax K-70 is undisputed for astrophotographers. It packs many pro-feeling features despite being positioned as an enthusiast camera with a modest $576 / £699 body only price. Headline features include a 24MP APS-C sensor with ludicrous ISO 100-102,400 sensitivity, weather-resistant body operable down to -10°C (unusual for this level of camera), optical viewfinder with 100% coverage (again, unusual), vari-angle screen, shake reduction up to 4.5EV and access to features like Astrotracer via an optional GPS unit.
There are also the little things to be found here that experienced astrophotographers will appreciate, like the comfortable grip and well-spaced controls that are easy to operate even for gloved hands. This is a camera tailor-made for the outdoors and photographing the night skies. There’s even a “night mode” LCD setting to make it easier to use in low-light.
Read our Pentax K-70 review
Best camera under $500/£500 for astrophotography: Canon EOS 6D
At a glance
If you look into the camera of choice for Astronomy Photographer of the year entrants, there’s one camera that pops up again and again, year after year: the Canon EOS 6D. It’s a 10-year old camera (from 2012) that proves you don’t need the latest and greatest kit to create award-winning astrophotography pictures. What makes the EOS 6D so popular? Perhaps it’s the 20MP full-frame sensor and ISO 100-25,600 sensitivity that performs really well in low-light. Or maybe it’s the excellent choice of EF-mount wide-angle, fast aperture lenses.
Now superseded by the Canon EOS 6D II which boasts a higher 26MP resolution and modern conveniences such as a vari-angle screen, image stabilisation and 4K timelapse, a second-hand EOS 6D can be had for anything between £250-450 depending on the condition. An absolute bargain.
Read our Canon EOS 6D Review
Best dedicated camera for astrophotography: Nikon D810a
At a glance
The Nikon D810a is a modified version of the 36.3MP full-frame D810, made specifically with astrophotography in mind. The ‘a’ denotes astrophotography and tells us that the filter in front of the sensor allows H-alpha emissions, also known as an infrared cut filter. What you get is a camera 4x more sensitive to the hydrogen-alpha wavelength, bringing out the true clarity and colours of the night sky.
Now discontinued, you’ll need some luck finding a D810a on the second-hand market, but they do appear now and again, from around $2400-2800 (with similar prices in £GBP). Canon also produced its own mirrorless astro-converted camera, the Canon EOS Ra. However, it has long since been discontinued, and frankly, good luck finding one.
Find out how Goran Strand uses the Nikon D810A.
An alternative to buying a camera dedicated to astrophotography, a service like www.lifepixel.com can convert a regular camera by replacing the standard low-pass filter with one that allows H-alpha emissions. Conversion could breathe new life into a camera otherwise gathering dust, or you could pick up a second-hand DSLR specifically for modification at a much lower price than a dedicated one.
Text by Tim Coleman, with contributions from Jon Stapley and Michael Topham.
Once you had a look at the different camera options, you’ll find some great tips in our articles on astrophotography.
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