Shopping strategy

Because of rapid technological progress, you generally want the newest DSLR that works well for astrophotography, not the most ruggedly built one. It's better to buy a low-end DSLR today and another one in three years with a new, improved sensor, rather than sink all your money into a professional-grade camera that will commit you to using today's technology for a decade.

Of course, if you can justify the expense for other reasons, go ahead and enjoy your Canon EOS 5D or Nikon D200; these cameras have big, bright viewfinders and are a joy to use. Apart from price, one disadvantage of pro-grade DSLRs is that they are heavy enough to unbalance a medium-sized amateur telescope. Another is that pro-grade cameras are more complicated to operate, and that can be a problem in the dark. Generally, professional cameras are designed for people who use them all the time and can easily remember a large number of controls. Entry-level cameras with simpler controls are easier to use, even for advanced work, as long as they have the features needed.

You don't have to have the best camera on the market in order to get good pictures. You just have to have a camera that is good enough. All astronomical instruments, including big observatory telescopes, have measurable limitations. We work so close to the limits of the laws of physics that perfection is unobtainable.

Also, buying the very newest camera has some drawbacks. This week's hot new DSLR may not yet be supported by your software, although updates usually come quickly. It also may not have fully debugged firmware (the software inside the camera); watch the manufacturer's Web site for firmware upgrades.

One last warning. Unreliable camera vendors are common on the Internet, and they often advertise impossibly low prices. Before dealing with a stranger, do some searching and find out whether others have had good experiences with the same merchant. You can find out the reputation of a vendor from www.epinions.com and www.resellerratings.com. Remember that even the best large-volume dealer has a few unsatisfied customers, and a "perfect" score may mean simply that not many customers have been surveyed.

Highly reliable camera dealers include B&H in New York (www.bhphotovideo. com), their neighbor Adorama (www.adorama.com), Samy's in Los Angeles (www.samys.com), KEH in Atlanta (www.keh.com), Wolf/Ritz all over the United States (www.wolfcamera.com), and Jessops in the UK (www.jessops.com). Their prices are a good indication of what you should expect to pay anywhere. You can also buy DSLRs from major computer dealers.

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