Choosing a camera for astrophotography can be a daunting task. Today we are spoiled for choice with a huge range of different manufacturers and models to choose from. The ZWO company has been producing astro-imaging cameras for a decade, and over the years it has become one of the most popular manufacturers of affordable cameras for astrophotography.
ZWO ASI533MC Pro: Key Features
Sensor: Color Sony IMX533MC (3008 x 3008, 9 MP)
Pixel size: 3.76 microns
CAN: 14 bit
FPS: 20 frames per second (full screen), faster thanks to ROI
Cooling: 12v dual stage, -45ºC below ambient
Maximum quantum efficiency: 80%
Mass: 16.6 ounces
The ASI533MC Pro camera is for those looking to buy a versatile camera dedicated to astrophotography. Once upon a time, cameras like this would have cost you a tidy four-figure sum, but with the advent of affordable technology from Chinese manufacturers such as ZWO, the playing field has completely changed. Today, cameras that once cost a small fortune are within reach of a much wider range of consumers.
This model offers a color camera with an integrated cooling system to minimize noise for long exposure astrophotography while being suitable for short exposure lunar and planetary imaging. It also comes with a variety of useful accessories to help you get started easily.
In this review, we’ve put the camera through its paces under the night sky on a host of different targets to see how well it performs.
ZWO ASI1533MC Pro review: Design
The ZWO ASI533MC Pro camera comes in a compact design typical of many cameras of this type. Its small 78 x 73.5mm body is ruggedly built with a host of ports on the rear of the camera housing as well as prominent cooling vents. The camera itself is equipped with a host of accessories to get you started right out of the box.
The camera connects to a PC via the supplied USB3 cable, and drivers to operate the camera can be downloaded from the ZWO website. We had no problem getting the camera up and running within minutes.
In the box with the camera itself comes a variety of accessories. The camera itself comes in a small padded zip bag. Also included are a host of different adapters giving you options on how to connect it to your telescope or attach other accessories.
On the rear of the camera are two USB2 ports for connecting/powering accessories such as an autoguider which most will need for extended exposure work. The camera cooling system is powered by a 12V power supply, which is not included with the camera but can be purchased separately.
ZWO ASI1533MC Pro review: Functionality
Using the ASI533MC Pro camera is a simple process. Drivers can be downloaded from the ZWO website, as can the camera control software you can use to operate the camera (called ASI Studio). The camera is also supported by other third party software which also works great to operate the camera. Programs such as Firecapture will run ZWO cameras and are freely available online for download.
The camera itself is powered directly from the USB connection. A separate power supply is only needed if you want to run the camera cooling system (only really needed for very long exposure jobs). Once connected to your PC, you will see a live preview on the screen. On the PC we tested the camera on, it easily hit the quoted 20fps at full frame without any issues.
For those looking to use the ASI533MC Pro for long exposure work, you will need a suitable 12V power supply to run the camera cooling system. ZWO offers some for sale, or an appropriate third party will (which is what we used for the purposes of this review).
ZWO ASI1533MC Pro review: Performance for astrophotography
Just like with the ZWO ASI183MC Pro, we first tested the ASI533MC Pro for planetary imaging; Jupiter was again the first proposed target. We attached the camera to the 14 inch (36 cm) telescope and aimed the telescope at Jupiter.
One thing to immediately note is that you will need a UV/IR blocking filter for this camera, otherwise the color will be polluted by the IR signal. For example, when imaging Jupiter, the screen image appears pink because of this. Such filters are widely and readily available – and are an important accessory for anyone doing astrophotography with dedicated astronomical imaging cameras such as this one.
With Jupiter, as much of the field was not needed, we used the region of interest (ROI) function to reduce the captured area. This allows the camera to operate at very high frame rates, which is desirable for imaging planets. Imaging planets with color cameras like this is always a lot of fun because you can often see lots of detail and color on their disks. One of the advantages of this particular camera is the larger pixel size of 3.76um. This matches well with longer focal length telescopes like the Schmidt Cassegrains. The 14-bit output is also very clean, and with the ROI you can easily run the camera at 100 fps or more.
You can also use the ASI533MC Pro as a mono camera. I attempted some near infrared captures of the lunar surface as the moon was also visible that night. The camera performed very well for the task and, as with Jupiter, delivered very clear and crisp data with low noise. Again, the larger pixel size is well suited for imaging with a telescope such as the C14.
This is followed by Deep Sky imaging tests. For that, I decided to wait for a good clear and moonless night. For initial testing, I decided to try imaging with the camera without using the cooling system to see how well it would perform “out of the box”, so to speak.
I decided to photograph the picturesque spiral galaxy NGC 6946 at Cepheus, one of my favorite targets in the northern hemisphere. Using the C14 at a reduced F7 focal length, I centered the galaxy and started a series of 60 second exposures without the cooling system active, as mentioned above. Even with this modest exposure time, a fair amount of detail was recorded in the galaxy. I ended up taking about 40 x 60 seconds of exposure and stacking about 30 to get the result shown here. This is a good result given that the sky conditions were average and the site average darkness. From a darker site with longer exposure times, even better results could be achieved.
I then decided to turn on the camera’s cooling system and try some shots using it. The cooling system is only necessary if you are going to use the camera for long single exposures (several minutes). In this case, it makes a noticeable difference in reducing noise in the image.
Overall, the performance of the ASI533MC Pro was impressive. It easily produced good, sharp images of deep sky targets and performed throughout the imaging session without any issues.
Should you buy the ZWO ASI533MC Pro?
For those looking to take their first step into purchasing a dedicated astronomical imaging camera but without having to use a mono camera, you can’t go wrong with the ASI533MC Pro. It is an excellent all-around imaging camera that can produce excellent images of planetary and deep-sky targets. It’s also incredibly easy to set up and use, which is a major plus. It’s also nice to see a camera like this offered without tiny pixels – which longer focal length telescope users like me really appreciate!
For the price, the ASI533MC Pro offers impressive specs and is much more affordable than equivalent high-end mono astro imaging cameras of similar resolution. However, no product is perfect and this one is no exception. It would be good to see a power supply and UR/IR blocking filter included in the standard package as these are essential accessories – the filter in particular.
Another point worth mentioning is how the camera compares to a similarly priced Canon/Nikon DSLR. Image quality is similar, and of course DSLR can also be used for conventional photography, so that’s something worth considering.