Astrophotography camera for deep-sky: what to choose

Choosing from various astrophotography camera for the deep-sky may seem complicated. In this article, through a series of practical examples, we will see how to choose astrophotography camera to record also the weakest details of galaxies, nebulae and star clusters through with long exposures (these camera are different from those used for planetary and lunar photography that record short videos and which we will discuss in a later article). Astrophotography camera for the deep-sky are almost always cooled, ie have a system with Peltier cells which cools and stabilizes the sensor at a low temperature in order to reduce the noise of the image and therefore improve its quality.

In this article we will meet some technical terms which must be taken into consideration when choosing an astrophotography camera of the deep-sky objects:

resolving power: is the minimum distance in arc seconds, with which two objects may be identified as separate bodies and is a function, closely related to the telescope diameter, calculated with the following formula:
a= 120 / D
where “a” is our resolving power expressed in arc seconds, “120” is a constant and “D” is the telescope diameter in millimeters.

seeing: is the set of phenomena that contribute to the deterioration of the image quality of both in visual and photographic application, such as atmospheric turbulence, humidity and light pollution.

– sampling: this is the concept more difficult to understand but it is essential for choosing the right camera as a function of the telescope. Its value indicates how many arc seconds can a single pixel of our sensor record.

After this introduction you may well understand that, if you already have a telescope, the choice of astrophotography camera depends also on the sensor pixels size.


Astrophotography camera for deep-sky: Cooled CMOS camerad from QHYCCD have a cooling system with Peltier cell that greatly reduces electronic noise.



Take a practical example based on the Borg fluorite apochromatic refractor 107FL f3.9 with ESATTO 3″, 107mm diameter and 417mm focal length. Its resolving power is calculated with the formula a=120/D that is 120/107=1.12 arc seconds. According to the Nyquist principle, the pixel size of the sensor must cover more than half of the smallest detail that our telescopes can solve. According to this, the astrophotography camera pixels will have to record the signal of an area of ​​sky equal to 1.15/2 = 0.56 arc seconds.

Starting by the formula C = (206265 x d) / L where:
L = telescope focal length in millimeters
d = sensor pixel dimensions in millimeters
C = sampling value in arc/sec
206265 = conversion factor from radiant to arc seconds

We can now calculate what we need to know to choose an astrophotography camera. We start from the analysis of a camera example, QHY247C: by the technical specifications we see that the pixel size is 3.9 microns. According to the formula we will have a sample of (206 265 x 0.0054) / 650 = 1.93 arc seconds. The result is quite far from the theoretical value that we calculated and tells us that we are undersampling the image, that is, our camera is not capable of recording all the details that the optics is able to record. So what?

We are forgetting the seeing and more precisely the effects of atmospheric turbulence, responsible for the distortion of the light that pass through the Earth’s atmosphere before reaching our instrument. In areas where the seeing is medium, the seeing allows us to record the finer details on 3-4 pixels. Therefore, by applying the Nyquist principle, our sampling will be around 1.5 to 2 arc seconds. Often it is not necessary to go below these values, as would we upsample the image that is the maximum detail would be reported by a number of pixels greater than two. Here is that the 1.93 arc seconds value obtained with QHY247C is perfectly in the range dictated by seeing conditions and coupled with the Borg fluorite apochromatic refractor 107FL f3.9 with ESATTO 3″ is therefore perfect. Do we want to look for something else that will work for our example? If we use the formula as a constant, setting the min and max value of our ideal sampling, the value of the sensor pixel size to be coupled to our Borg fluorite apochromatic refractor 107FL f3.9 with ESATTO 3″ will be from 3 to 4 microns.

Let’s make another example with SkyWatcher Newton QUATTRO 200/800 f4 with SESTO SENSO that has 200mm diameter and 800mm focal length. We calculate the min and max value of the pixel size of our hypothetical sensor, on the basis of theoretical sampling values  from 1.5 to 2 arc seconds:

d = (L x C) / 206265
1) with 1,5 arc seconds: (800 x 1,5) / 206265 = 8 micron
2) with 2,0 arc seconds: (800 x 2) / 206265 = 12 micron

It is inside this pixel size range that we must focus our search. What is the astrophotography camera that meets these requirements? An example would be the QHY128, which uses a sensor with 6.0 microns pixels.



Having calculated the ideal size of the sensor pixels, we can now select an astrophotography camera based on other parameters including:

Sensor type: sensors for astrophotography camera for deep-sky may be color or monochrome. The first, of course, allow you to get directly a color image and thus are these camera are easier to use than monochrome ones (that need a series of filters, such as LRGB set to enable us to reconstruct the image in color using special processing techniques). Monochrome camera, however, have an important advantage: they are, given the same sensor, more sensitive of the corresponding color one. This not only allows us to record weaker details with the same exposition time (or you can also say, you can record the same stellar magnitudes with shorter exposition times than those required by a color camera) and, more importantly, allow to use narrow-band filters against light pollution (such as H-alpha, OIII and SII filters) that increase a lot the nebula contrast against the sky background (also reducing the size of the stars letting you point out better the framed nebula) and allow you to perform astrophotography also from areas with evident light pollution.


Astrophotography camera for deep-sky: California nebula recorded with QHY8L color CCD camera (above) and QHY9 mono CCD camera with H-alpha filter (below), both with AIRY APO80 telescope (recorded by Filippo Bradaschia and Omar Cauz).
Astrophotography camera for deep-sky: California nebula recorded with QHY8L color CCD camera (above) and QHY9 mono CCD camera with H-alpha filter (below), both with AIRY APO80 telescope (recorded by Filippo Bradaschia and Omar Cauz).


So the choice of the sensor type also depends on the place from you want to make astrophotography. If you can access a site with little light pollution, you can choose a color astrophotography camera (perhaps using a broadband nebula filter to slightly reduce light pollution – in order to use the filter with a color camera it will not have too narrow band to let more light pass to the camera and to avoid altered colors). If you record pictures from a place with evident light pollution, choose a monochrome camera. Obviously monochrome camera is always recommended (in fact, is almost always chosen by experts amateur astronomers) given the added sensitivity but they’re also the most complex to use.

Sensor dimension: at the same telescope focal length, a larger sensor allows to frame a greater area and therefore is to be preferred. By accessing the “Camera” page of our website you can select, to the left, several diagonals dimensions. You can see how astrophotography camera with larger sensors also have a higher cost, which of course is a parameter to be considered in the choice of an astrophotography camera for deep-sky

In this respect we must consider also the corrected area provided by the telescope: for example it is useless to buy a FullFrame sensor with 43mm diagonal and then use it with a telescope that provides the corrected area of 20mm (that indicates the diameter of the corrected image circle generated by the telescope in which the stars are point): the result is in fact an image with elongated stars toward the edges of the image. In our example with Borg fluorite apochromatic refractor 107FL f3.9 with ESATTO 3″, this telescope with field flattener has a 55mm diameter flat field so we can choose a very large sensor. If we use a cheaper telescope, such as the SkyWatcher EVOSTAR 72 ED apochromatic refractor with SESTO SENSO, we can choose astrophotography camera with APS-C sensors (with a 28mm diagonal sensor).


Astrophotography camera for deep-sky: example of telescope corrected field and sensor dimensions.
Astrophotography camera for deep-sky: example of telescope corrected field and sensor dimensions.