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Using a Modified DSLR/Mirrorless Camera for Astrophotography - Is it Worth it?

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

For the first time since starting Astrophotography, we finally tried a camera that has been Astro-modified... and wow, we were impressed!


In this post, we'll show you some comparison examples between a stock DSLR camera and a modded mirrorless camera. We'll also advise you on whether you should get your own camera modified, buy a pre-modded one, or jump to an astronomy-dedicated camera straight away.



We would like to thank Daniel Amado from Astrogear for letting us try a modified camera for this post! If you are looking to modify your DSLR or mirrorless camera, or purchasing a pre-modified one, we are very pleased with Astrogear's services and recommend them to you as well 😀 Daniel's astro conversions will mainly give your camera increased H-Alpha sensitivity results, which is a useful addition especially if you like to image nebulae!


Tables of Contents

  • What is the advantage of an Astro-modified camera?

  • Photographing the Orion Constellation with a modified mirrorless camera

  • Stock vs Astro-Modded - How much of a difference can you see?

  • Our full video comparing a stock DSLR camera with a modded mirrorless camera

  • DSLR or Mirrorless - Which camera to pick for Astrophotography?

  • Can you use an Astro-modified camera for daytime photography?

  • Where to get your camera modified or buy a pre-modified camera?

  • Final Thoughts


 

What is the advantage of an Astro-modified camera?


What is the point of modding a camera? If you are a beginner astrophotographer, you might be wondering why someone would decide to modify their camera for this hobby. To make it simple, modding a camera allows you to make it much more sensitive to gases like Hydrogen-Alpha, which is present in thousands of nebulae and galaxies in the night sky. This is achievable by removing the IR cut filter, which cuts most of the faint red color from most emission nebulae from reaching the sensor.


A vast majority of the popular nebulae in the night sky are filled with hydrogen-alpha gas, and the IR cut filter present in unmodified DSLR and mirrorless cameras is to blame for making that sweet HA wavelength barely visible in long exposure pictures.


Some examples of emission nebulae full of hydrogen-alpha include the Rosette Nebula, the Orion Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula, the Heart Nebula, and pretty much anywhere in Cygnus as seen on the fourth picture below with the Sadr region.



The comparison shots below, taken from Astrogear show the difference in signal captured between a stock and a modded camera, on a target full of HA gas. The difference is insane!


Before and After modifying a camera for astrophotography

First of all, you modify DSLR or mirrorless cameras, not astronomy-dedicated ones. The main difference between a DSLR/Mirrorless camera and an astronomy-dedicated camera is that the astronomy-dedicated camera is built for astrophotography. A stock DSLR/Mirrorless camera is built for everyday photography.


There are a few exceptions to this, for example, the discontinued Canon Ra or the Nikon D810A which were built for astrophotography. They are almost identical to their regular non-astro versions except they come pre-modified from the factory. This is great, but also way pricier than it should be.


Note that there are several types of astro-conversions. Some mods will affect the color balance of your camera when used for daytime photography, while some others won't impact it much. For more information on the different types of astro conversions, check out THIS PAGE.


camera low pass filter
The low pass filter removed

Stock Canon cameras have by default an ultraviolet and infrared blocking filter, as well as an anti-aliasing low pass filter. In our case, the Canon M200 we received has the anti-aliasing low pass filter removed.


The advantage of removing this filter is for the camera to achieve its maximum native sharpness. The camera also has a Baader luminance sensor filter installed inside the camera body, right in front of the sensor.



Now on top of this, the main modification done to the camera is the removal of the UV/IR sensor filter. Taking this filter out of the camera is what allows the sensor to gather much more Hydrogen-Alpha signal! All there is in front of our sensor here is a Baader luminance sensor filter.


 

Photographing the Orion Constellation with a modified mirrorless camera


Shortly after receiving the modified Canon M200 from Daniel, we went to a Bortle 4 zone to record a video and, of course, image a nebula! Our plans kind of went to the trash when we unexpectedly encountered an abandoned dog. We canceled our imaging session and went home with it as it was crying non-stop by the car. You can read the dog's full story on our website.


A few nights later, I went back to that same spot for a quick imaging session using the Canon 200M on my small star tracker.


Sadly I realized I had the wrong cable for the camera, so what I did was manually tap the shutter button every 10 shots to take pictures.

This was of course tedious but somehow fun as it reminded me of my astrophotography beginnings!


I decided to image Barnard's Loop, which is a huge nebulous area spreading across most of the Orion constellation. This is a challenging yet popular wide field target for amateur astrophotographers.

Due to its size, this is best imaged without a telescope so I instead used a 50mm camera lens set at f/4.


For faint nebulosity like this, you ideally want to take long exposures (5 to 10 minutes) and spend several hours or even nights to get a nice and clean image.

That night, I only spent one hour on this target and, because I had the wrong cable, could only take 30-second exposures... I honestly was not expecting much from the data, but WOW! What an impressive result!


Barnard's Loop with a modified mirrorless camera

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GEAR USED:

Processing: Pixinsight



ACQUISITION DETAILS:

Total Exposure Time: 1 hour

Exposure Time per frame: 30 seconds

120 lights, calibrated with Darks and Bias

ISO: 3200


Now, this is beautiful and all but... how much of a difference is there really compared to a stock camera?

Well, find out below!


 

Our full video comparing a stock DSLR camera with a modded mirrorless camera


We went out to the desert to image Barnard's Loop with the modified M200 camera, watch the video below!



 

Stock vs Astro-Modded - How much of a difference can you see?


Lucky for this post, we actually imaged Barnard's Loop with our unmodified DSLR camera a few years ago... so we can show you a great comparison shot! Back then, we photographed this target with our stock Canon 7D Mark II for about 3.6 hours, and then added an extra 3.6 hours with a hydrogen-alpha filter, later on, to bring much more of the hydrogen alpha gas out.


What you are seeing below is our final image (without the help of the HA filter) totaling 3.6 hours. Click on the arrow to the right to quickly compare this shot with our image taken with the modified Canon M200. The difference is incredible!


Remember that the shot taken with the 7D Mark II is more than triple the exposure time, so it's even more impressive to see how much better the Canon M200 image looks with just one hour of exposure!


Image 1:

Stock Canon 7D Mark II | Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM Lens | 3.6 hours of exposure

Image 2:


 

Right before imaging Barnard's Loop, I also took the time to take some quick 30-second test shots of a few areas of the sky with both cameras. Note that 30 seconds is way too short to show obvious differences, but I did what I could. Also, these shots are heavily compressed, so watch our video to see them in higher resolution!


1 - The Cygnus Constellation

The area in Cygnus is rich in hydrogen-alpha gas. The image on the left was taken with the stock DSLR camera and you cannot see any nebulous regions. Some patches of nebulosity can be spotted on the image on the right, taken with the modded mirrorless camera. It is of course difficult to see due to the low exposure time, but you can see the gases near the Butterfly nebula easily in the center of the frame, and the North America nebula is well defined near the left side.


Cygnus - Stock DSLR vs Astro modified Mirrorless camera

 

2 - The Cassiopeia Constellation

Next is the area in Cassiopeia, also rich in hydrogen-alpha gas. Here, the non-modified camera does show one nebula (the Pacman Nebula), although it is much more prominent in the modified-camera shot. The main difference is that there is much more gas all over the image visible on the right image (modded camera), including the Heart and Soul nebulae visible on the upper left. The non-modified test shot does not show any of that gas.


Cassiopeia - Stock DSLR vs Astro modified Mirrorless camera


 

3 - The Orion constellation

Finally, here is a test shot comparing the stock and modded cameras on the Orion constellation. Those are single shots taken right before imaging Barnard's Loop.

The bright Orion Nebula, as well as De Marian's Nebula and the Flame nebula, are visible in both shots! In the modded camera shot, more nebulosity can be seen, such as the Horsehead Nebula and the gas from Barnard's Loop!


Orion - Stock DSLR vs Astro modified Mirrorless camera


 

DSLR or Mirrorless - Which camera to pick for Astrophotography?


If you already have a DSLR or a Mirrorless camera, then it is a great idea to send that one to get modified instead of purchasing a new one. Many beginner astrophotographers decide to get their Canon or Nikon camera modified early so that they can take full advantage of the sensor early in their journey.

If you do not currently own a camera that you'd like to dedicate to astrophotography, then you might wonder if you should go with a DSLR or a mirrorless one.


The main difference between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera, besides the obvious fact that mirrorless cameras don't have a mirror, is that DSLR cameras are bulkier, heavier, and often slightly more expensive. Due to this, mirrorless cameras are getting more and more popular, especially in the astrophotography world! The Canon M200 mirrorless camera we used for this shot only weighs 10.55oz (299g) and that's including the battery pack and memory card! For comparison, our Canon 7D Mark II DSLR camera weighs 2 pounds (910g).


I was very impressed with how small and light the Canon M200 was compared to my DSLR camera, especially since it performed so well! Another big difference, which will matter for owners of RASA telescopes, is that many small mirrorless cameras can be attached to a RASA and not obstruct too much light. The Canon M200 we used, for example, is compatible with RASA 8; 11 and 36 telescopes, as well as many Hyperstar setups.



Besides the portability and the RASA compatibility, mirrorless cameras also have several other advantages over DSLR cameras. For example, they have a shorter body flange back focus than DSLR cameras (18mm vs 45mm) making it easier to reach the perfect back focal distance with most telescopes. A mirrorless camera like the M200 will have room for additional accessories (drop-in filter drawer, off-axis guider, etc) when used with a low profile 10mm or thinner T-ring adapter.


They also do great with telescopes that have a fast focal ratio (f/3 or faster) thanks to their fantastic sensor illumination, casting no mirror shadows with fast optics.


Canon 7D Mark II DSLR (left) and Canon M200 Mirrorless (right)



You can read more information on the pros and cons of DSLR, mirrorless, and even astronomy-dedicated cameras HERE.


 

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Can you use an Astro-modified camera for daytime photography?


This question is often left unanswered, and it is often because of this doubt that people are afraid to modify their camera for astrophotography (us included!)


The answer depends on what type of Astro conversion you decided to get. In three out of four cases, you can still use an Astro-modded camera during the daytime, but there is a trick.


Above are photos of the sky, and our dog during the daytime using the modded camera. No settings or additional filters were used. As you can see, there is definitely a red hue all over the image. This can be fixed depending on the conversion applied to your camera.


Let's go through each type of conversion and discuss the possibility of daytime photography:


1. UV/IR blocking Bluish filter removal

Here, you can still use the camera for daytime photography, as long as you set the custom white balance correctly using a gray card. You do not need any additional original white balance filters.

2. Enhanced Spectrum conversion with Baader Luminance Filter and LPF

Same as #1! As long as you take the time to set the white balance properly in your camera settings using a grey card, you'll be able to use the camera for daylight photography.

3. Enhanced Spectrum Conversion with Baader Luminance Filter only

Same as #1 and #2! Set the white balance properly in your camera settings and have fun doing daytime photography!

4. Full Spectrum conversion with Astronomik Anti-Reflective Clear Glass only

With this modification, you will need an additional Original White Balance filter if you intend on doing regular photography during the daytime. An example of Original White Balance (OWB) filter is the Astronomik OWB Clip filter, which can be used with Canon EF Lenses. This is a clip-on filter, which is very simple to attach to a camera but will not fit with EF-S lenses.


The Astronomic OWB clip-on filter
The Astronomic OWB clip-on filter

 

Where to get your camera modified or buy a pre-modified camera?


There are several websites offering astro-conversions for both DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Because our main DSLR camera's primary function has been to record video since we started our channel, we never inquired to anyone about modding it. We didn't really plan on shooting with a modified camera until Daniel from Astrogear reached out to us. He offered to let us try one of his modified mirrorless cameras for a while and share some of our thoughts with you guys, so we said yes!


Astrogear not only modifies your own camera but also sells pre-modded cameras if you'd rather keep your current camera "untouched". Astrogear promises 4X increased sensitivity to Hydrogen-Alpha emissions and 6X increased sensitivity to Sulfur II gas on all modded cameras sold on the store. We are very impressed by the sensitivity of the modified M200 mirrorless camera Daniel sent us and the prices are great. Both APS-C and full-frame sensors can be modified for astrophotography.


DSLR camera astro conversion

Modifying a DSLR for astrophotography (or mirrorless camera) is also possible by yourself, but it is very tedious, risky, and time-consuming. If you are not a very tech-savvy person with your hands, we would recommend getting your camera professionally modified.


If you are interested in getting an astro-modded camera, see several options on Astrogear. You can temporarily ship your camera body to the shop or get a camera that is already astro modified.

 

Final Thoughts


We were really impressed with the modified mirrorless camera we tried on the Orion region. We did not expect to see so much signal, especially with short 30-second exposures!


Should you get a modified camera for astrophotography?

If you love the simplicity of using a DSLR/mirrorless camera and are not ready to jump into the world of cooled astronomy dedicated cameras, then YES! Using a modified camera allows you to get much more signal while keeping the ease of use that DSLR and mirrorless cameras offer, such as a flip LCD screen, fewer cables, and actual buttons. The only problem if you intend to do astrophotography for a long while is that the camera will still lack a cooling system, which is the main feature of astronomy-dedicated cameras. You can read our guide about some great beginner DSLR and astrophotography cameras.


Modified cameras can be used with both telescopes and lenses, and do not have any downsides as long as you don't mind changing the white balance settings (or using an OWB filter) for daytime photography. They are of course much better than unmodified DSLR/mirrorless cameras for astrophotography, and will show much more data when photographing the Milky Way, most emission nebulae, and even some galaxies that are home to hydrogen-alpha light. Some other deep sky objects rich in HA and SII might also look better with a modded camera.


Barnard's Loop - Stock DSLR vs Astro modified Mirrorless camera

If we had to pick between a DSLR and a mirrorless camera, we would go with a mirrorless one! They are usually much smaller and lighter. Mirrorless cameras are also getting more and more popular in the astrophotography world.


If you need to get your camera modified, or would like to purchase a pre-converted one, check out Astrogear, the prices start at $169 and are very fair. In the end, we're happy to say that they did a great job on the Canon M200 we tried!


Clear Skies,

Antoine & Dalia

Galactic Hunter


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