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Thread: Need a CCD camera primer

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    Default Need a CCD camera primer



    When the weather is cloudy for weeks on end, like it is now, I do what every other astronomer does - I browse product catalogues and Google new gear. I drool a lot.

    So I was looking at CCD cameras and was blown away by the price range. There is everything from $300 to $12,000! I know you get what you pay for, but there's no way in the lifetime of this universe that I will be paying $12,000 for any camera. But, I assume there is some rational basic for choosing one camera over another.

    So why would one choose a $12,000 camera over a $200 one? Or, of more practical interest, how cheap a camera could one buy and still be able to take decent pictures.

    I am using a DSLR right now and getting decent results, so I am familiar with some of the challenges of AP.
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    Hi Keith I guess I could try to post a decent answer here

    The main cost issues/factors involved are:


    • warranty - some cameras like SBIG has 2-3 year warranty while QHY to my knowledge has none (I guess store based/support 30-day returns?)
    • CCD sensor megapixel number (generally the more the pixels the newer the ccd sensor and the more expensive to obtain/purchase)
    • CCD class/grade (1,2, no column defects, defects)
    • CCD mono (monochrome) or color (one shot cameras - termed OSC) - most pro's prefer mono cameras.
    • sensitivity (usually the more sensitive the chip, the more expensive) measured also by quantum efficiency: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_efficiency
    • noise (read noise value) and noise reduction technology (from none, to fan based, to active thermo-electric cooling (TEC), or even water cooling - to a combination of methods - all add to cost; TEC efficiency is based on the ability eg
      C Delta Cooling measurement)
    • Adaptive optics, shutter capability, frame/memory buffer and other internal features of electronics
    • Download speed (usb 2.0/3.0/ethernet) / fps (frames per second) for planetary imaging ccd's
    • nitrogen/gas purged/"moisture free"/etc. ccd chamber - rids moisture from dewing, collecting on imaging/optical sensor chamber - different manufacturers have different methods leading to different costs - some have User Rechargeable Desiccant Plug to remove moisture as it may build up in the chamber.
    • coatings of glass/lenses of camera (ED; etc.)
    • accessories added with the camera (box, cables, adapters)
    • other features like proprietary guiding camera built in (SBIG), integrated filter wheel with motor mechanisms (to change filters all built into the camera body!), etc.
    • Ports - ST-4 port to be used as a guider (for those that can afford or want a $1000+ guider!), Ethernet, all add to cost
    • software and driver development and updates (some companies have better drivers and software)
    • leaders / trust / support - in development traditionally SBIG and some other companies are considered leaders, while others are followers in a sense (cost a bit more)
    • some cameras like the QHY series come with a piece of paper for a manual to save on costs, others come with a very good printed manual
    • software downloads - and online/phone support - require a server, forum, and support team
    • supply/demand issues than lead to higher costs

    I will try to think of some more
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    Default

    Hi Keith,

    I always like to refer to this page for the broad side of the barn - there's many others, but IMO Steve Cannistra did a great job here. There is another I like by Stan Moore. And another overview from Starizona. Though it is from a manufacturer, here is another from Apogee (they call CCD university)that may be useful.

    Hope these will have some happy reading for you.
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    Default

    Hi
    There are also some other things to take into consideration
    Some companies such as FLI will put different makes of chip such EV2 and Fairchild in their cameras which are super efficient chips but the cost of the cameras go up to about $40,000. Also as far as I am aware FLI is the only company that I know of that will custom make your camera so that you can have the chip at the height that you want (how close it is to the optical window) as well as having the choice of having a cover slip on the chip or not. They will also fit a dew control system to the optical window on their cameras. A lot of manufacturers use the same electronics for cooling, downloading etc regardless of the chip, FLI cameras have the electronics custom made for the chip so the camera performs at its optimum.
    At the end of the day you get what you pay for such as performance, warranty, R&D, reliability, customer service and everything else mentioned above.
    If you are serious about the hobby like me and many others then you will be prepared to spend that bit extra and get the best equipment as it helps the overall process go much smoother
    Best wishes
    Gordon
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    Hello,

    Does CCD really get the moon from behind massive clouds, or even horizon density/pollution/..?

    Thanks

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    Keith,

    I use a Meade DSI Pro II. While no longer in production they can still be found. On places like Astromart and Cloudy Nights, they go for around $400 +/-. If you want to see what they can produce take a look at my website under 'Deep Space Images'. Nothing fancy, and certainly not what a CCD camera in the thousands of dollars can do, but an inexpensive way to do AP.

    Terry
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    I know pros typically prefer monochrome.. but can someone explain why? And would this difference really be notible (in return for the added steps during post-production) at the near-VGA resolution offered by the DSI II? Thanks in advance.

    I was thinking of going with an OSC to start, as image quality isn't critical while learning (stacking, exposures, color correction, and all that fun stuff), plus it would allow me to see/show the image in color during star parties on the screen.
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    Quote Originally Posted by andrei23 View Post
    I know pros typically prefer monochrome.. but can someone explain why? And would this difference really be notible (in return for the added steps during post-production) at the near-VGA resolution offered by the DSI II? Thanks in advance.

    I was thinking of going with an OSC to start, as image quality isn't critical while learning (stacking, exposures, color correction, and all that fun stuff), plus it would allow me to see/show the image in color during star parties on the screen.
    I have been debating the same thing, and from my research the (practical) difference between mono and color is: sensitivity vs. ease of use.

    A mono CCD has every single pixel sensitive to shades of black/white. Whereas a color CCD has a series of RGB (red/green/blue) pixels across its surface. So when a photon hits a mono CCD, it will "excite" all of the pixels in the area it hits. Whereas the same pixel hitting a color CCD will only excite the RGB pixel that responds to color of the photon. Therefore, the mono CCD is more sensitive to light since all of its pixels are identical and respond to all photons; whereas the color CCD will have pixels that only respond to the color hitting them.

    On the flip side, if you want to get a color image out of a mono CCD, you will need to use filters and take a series of 3 images (RGB) then stack them. So the color CCD certainly wins the convenience award, since it is a one-shot unit.

    For starting out, I am going with color. But I know from reading enough posts that if I ever get really serious about AP, I'll probably eventually have to move to mono and the color wheels.

    Clear skies!

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    Thanks, jstrong... more of less the same conclusion I've reached after doing some research & reading. Going with color for now, and can still play with stacking some RGB monochrome images if I need - good debayering can somewhat make up for what the RGGB pixel arrangement loses. IF my skills improve and my interest persists, THEN I can look into upgrading my $200 camera with something in the $2000-$10,000 range.
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    I am not an expert. I'm not even close to it.

    I started with the Meade CCD line [Pro, II OSC and III OSC] and still have a few DSI Pros that I will fit up as guiders. On to Orion DSI I & II OSC. Two SX Cameras. One QHY and Sbig ST-2K and ST-4K. Atik 16HRC and Atik 383L+ Cameras. I don't spend much time on Eyepieces...

    I still have three SBig ST-4K, a mono Apogee Alta 8300U and a yet-to-see-1st-light FLI ML-8300. The Atik will be for sale soon [nothing wrong, just too many Cameras].

    The Meade were low end consumer items. Little to very low cooling capability and noisy Chips. These are intended for very short subframes, which can be limiting on the results. The Orion were a definite step up, cleeaner with better cooling and very usable Software. SX are nice but can be buggy as far as device drivers, Software, design and support. QHY is even more of a trial-and-error design. This not meant as a knock on SX or QHY, but rather implies that some skill sets help successful execution when using either brand.

    The Atik are a poorly documented Cameras, that are well engineered and surprisingly good values. But the resale takes a hit, due to less market base.

    SBig builds a straight forward tank of a Camera. Easy to use. Well supported. I had a noisy Camera that I sent back for repairs. While it was significantly noisier than the others that I owned, it was within their acceptable specs. So they cleaned and inspected it at no charge. I was asked to pay for shipment. Fair enough!

    I sent a ST-4k back for chip replacement. I pick the noisy one and had it converted to Mono. Again fast, easy and friendly.

    I have used their AO-8, and it couldn't be much simpler a design to have. Bullet proof and straight forward.

    I love the Apogee Alta. What a Camera BUT the cool down and return take about 1/2 hour. Ouch! I tested the FLI, it takes about 5 minutes. Nice!

    As to cooling. On a given night in Michigan Winter, the SBig St-4K will hit -16 to-18C at 60 to 70% power. The Apogee will hit -36 to -40C at 50 to 60% power. The FLI will hit -36 to -40C at 70 to 80% power.

    It can make a difference on creating clean darks. yes, my Apogee will run cooler that the FLI, but it's a 1/2 to cool or warm, compared to 5 minutes with the FLI.

    All three brands of CCD Camers make great darks for me. As far as download, the FLI is mile faster than the Apogee. The SBig is a smaller chip, and is not a fair comparison with download. It has dual chips, which makes for a really nice imager/guide or imager/AO tool.

    The Apogee is by far the loud fan noise champ of the group. All have excellent Software/device driver and support. But this comes at a price.

    As far as chips. I doubt that the basic consumer versions of these CCD chips are any different between most of the major Camera supplier. From a business prospective, you are going to buy cost-effective volume produced chips. Just stated IMHO. The exception will be for low volume chips, which then is very expensive to support. It just makes logical commercial sense.

    Electronics and case design, along with Software is what separates the herd. Meade makes a Camera that works, has funky device drivers and minimal third party support at best. By the top of the stack, you get excellent hardware design. Nice packaging and a range of Software options.

    While I have really run a gloss over this Topic, you can glean a general feel. A bit of Online investigation will point out problems in the Market. While Apogee, for example, comes at a price penalty, they guarantee the CCD chamber against frosting for the life of the Camera. A Camera that is expected to dropped to some impressive cooling on TEC and Fans. Price can have it's benefits too.

    Hope this helps some... Typos were intentionally inserted by my two fat left thumbs. AlanP

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