FAQs about the Cookbook Camera

Please note: The information on this page was current in 1996.

What Is the Cookbook CCD camera?

The Cookbook CCD camera is actually two CCD cameras described in a book titled The CCD Camera Cookbook by Viekko Kanto, John Munger, and Richard Berry. One camera uses the inexpensive TC211 CCD chip so it is called the Cookbook 211. The other camera uses the larger and more sensitive Texas Instruments TC245 CCD chip and is called the Cookbook 245. Both CCDs are made by Texas Instruments. The book contains step-by-step instructions and computer software for building and using both CCD cameras.

How Much Does the Cookbook Camera Cost?

You can build a Cookbook 211 for as little as $250, but most people prefer to build the more sensitive Cookbook 245, which requires about $350 in parts. The most expensive component in the Cookbook CCD cameras is the CCD. The TC211 CCD chip costs $35, while the TC245 chip costs between $95 and $125, depending on the supplier. While Texas Instruments has discontinued it, thousands of TC245s are still available from University Optics. More than 90% of all Cookbook camera owners have built the Cookbook 245. Many have opted to buy ready-made circuit boards, and Univeristy Optics also offers machined parts for the camera body, and a kit that includes all the electronic components for a total cost of about $525.

How Sensitive Is the Cookbook CCD camera?

The Cookbook camera is amazingly sensitive. For making images, many builders opt for integration times of just 30 to 60 seconds, and, of course, integrations of twenty minutes allow you to detect exceedingly faint celestial objects.

An outstanding feature of the Cookbook camera is the ease of finding celestial objects using very short "finder mode" integrations. On a 4-inch telescope, the Cookbook camera shows 15th magnitude stars in 1.5 seconds. This means that the Cookbook CCD camera delivers a picture to your computer screen every 2 seconds, so that with a 4-inch telescope you could locate Pluto in real time. Even with a 4-inch telescope, all of the Messier objects and thousands of NGC objects are easily visible in real time.

With a modest telescope and integration times of 30 to 60 seconds, the Cookbook CCD cameras show the Horsehead Nebula, the Leo I dwarf galaxy, and tens of thousands of faint NGC, IC, and UGC objects. Stack-and-track imaging, with effective integration times of 10 minutes to 6 hours, can reach untold numbers of uncatalogued galaxies and stars fainter than those shown on the Palomar Observatory Sky Survey.

Do I Need a Computer?

Yes. The computer is an essential part of the Cookbook CCD camera, but the Cookbook CCD camera was designed to run with very basic PCs. The older XT, AT, 386 computers work just as well for capturing images as the newest models. Many builders use notebook and laptop computers to run their Cookbook cameras. We recommend that you use an older, less-valuable computer, or a portable for capturing images at the telescope.

How Good Is the Cookbook Camera?

The Cookbook CCD camera is comparable in performance to commercial units on the market. Figures for well capacity (150,000 electrons), readout noise (~20 electrons r.m.s.), and dynamic range (72 dB) equal or exceed specifications for comparable commercial units. The Cookbook CCD camera's thermoelectric cooling system attains -30 Celsius, permitting exposure times over 60 minutes. The Cookbook CCD camera is inexpensive because the owner builds the camera.

Can I Build a Cookbook Camera?

Although a few Cookbook camera builders have degrees in electronic engineering, the greatest number of Cookbook builders have had no previous experience with electronics or computer technology. The CCD Camera Cookbook provides detailed instructions, and these, coupled with the step-by-step test software that comes with the book, allow anyone possessing "stick-to-it-ness" and basic familiarity with everyday tools to construct their own CCD camera.

How Long Does It Take to Build?

Construction times vary with the free time the individual can devote to building the camera. The total time -- if you do everything yourself -- is about 50 hours. The fastest Cookbook camera we know took 10 days to build, but it takes most people four to eight weeks. Be prepared for sluggish delivery on parts; although the CCD chips and the thermoelectric coolers usually arrive within two weeks of order, the wait may be longer.

What Do I Get When I Order the Cookbook?

In the Cookbook you get 176 pages of detailed instructions plus software for testing and operating the camera. The book describes how CCDs operate, gives complete circuit specifications, parts lists, and electronic timing diagrams for both Cookbook CCD cameras. The diskette that comes with the book has computer test programs that allow the builder to check the camera's circuits as they are built, and also the software that operates the Cookbook camera. The Cookbook costs only $29.95, and small investment to make against a large return of a CCD camera.

How Many Pixels Does the Cookbook Camera Have?

The Cookbook 211, using the inexpensive TC211 CCD with 192x165 pixels, is an excellent option for those who cannot afford a larger CCD camera. With the upgrade option of correlated double sampling and amplifier blanking, the Cookbook 211 rivals 14-bit cameras based on the same chip.

The Cookbook 245, with a count of 378x242 pixels, is a full-fledged imaging camera offering a higher pixel count than the ST5 or ST6, and virtually the same pixel count as the Kodak KAF-400 chip in 2x2 binned mode. Physically, the TC245 is an advantageously large CCD, with 17x20-micron pixels on a 6.4x4.8-millimeter CCD chip. With correlated double sampling built into the CCD, the TC245 is an excellent CCD imager for amateur astronomers.

What About Lunar and Planetary Imaging?

Cookbook camera builders have taken outstanding images of the moon and planets with their Cookbook CCD cameras. For best results, you should use eyepiece projection or a Barlow lens for an effective focal ratio of f/45. This seemingly long focal ratio allows the Cookbook camera to capture diffraction-limited image detail with integration times of 1/10 of a second. The Cookbook 245 can make integrations as short as 1 millisecond (1/1000 of a second) and as long as 9999.9 seconds, over 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Can I Use a Cookbook CCD camera on my Telescope?

Yes. The Cookbook camera described in the book is equipped with a 1.25-inch adapter for easy insertion into most eyepiece holders, and the popular University Optics metal camera body parts set incorporates a camera industry standard T-thread on the front that will couple your complete Cookbook camera directly to a standard Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and to a variety of eyepiece adapters and standard 35mm camera lens adapters from University Optics.

How Much Does the Cookbook CCD camera Weigh?

The camera head that contains the CCD chip weighs about two pounds and is 2.6 inches diameter by 3.2 inches overall length, less than some eyepieces. To convert signals from the camera for the computer, a small electronic interface box must be located within five feet of the camera head. Three cables and two coolant hoses connect the camera to the camera's power supply and the computer. Although the book suggests using 15-foot cables, builders report using cables over 40 feet in length.

How Is the CCD in the Cookbook camera Cooled?

The Cookbook camera uses a single-stage thermoelectric Peltier cooler to maintain the CCD at a temperature of -30 Celsius. Circulating coolant removes the heat from the camera body and helps to maintain a highly stable chip temperature. For field use, the camera can be operated without coolant, but for optimum performance we recommend a coolant reservoir containing at least 2.5 gallons (10 liters) of water or water/alcohol mixture.

Do City Lights Affect the Cookbook Camera?

City lights affect all CCD cameras, but less than they affect visual observing and astrophotography. Builders report having made images of the Horsehead Nebula from bright suburban skies and imaging the brighter Messier objects from urban downtown locations. Of course, you can expect to get better results imaging from dark rural skies, but the Cookbook CCD camera cuts through city lights (and moonlight) most effectively.

Is It Difficult to Use the Cookbook Camera?

Ease of imaging with the Cookbook camera is equal or superior to other CCDs, including widely promoted commercial units. In all CCD imaging, your telescope, your computer, and your CCD must work in coordination, regardless of the type of CCD camera you are using. Imaging is always easiest in a small observatory because the set-up is minimal, and most difficult in remote locations. Ease of imaging with the Cookbook camera is equal or superior to other CCDs because its rapid image display simplifies finding and focusing on celestial objects, and features such as autoscaling, multiple image mode, and single-keystroke save make image-taking fast and efficient.

Should I Build the Cookbook Camera?

This question is for you to answer. The Cookbook camera is not for everyone. It appeals strongly to people who feel the need to know how things work. You learn a lot about CCDs when you build the Cookbook camera, and because you are deeply familiar with the camera you can service and upgrade it yourself without lengthy and expensive returns to the factory. Financially, of course, you'll be $1,500 to $2,000 ahead of the game if you build a Cookbook camera. Most Cookbook camera builders say they could not even dream of owning a CCD camera if it were not for the Cookbook.

The most compelling reason to build the Cookbook camera is the pride you can take in a job you have done yourself. While other CCD owners go on about how much money they have spent, you can concentrate on taking images that equal or excel theirs knowing that the camera you are using is truly your own.

How Many People Have Built the Cookbook Camera?

It is difficult to keep track of the number of completed cameras, but the publisher estimates that just two years after publication of the Cookbook (i.e., in 1996) over 2,500 cameras had been completed and are in operation, and many more are under construction at this time.

Ultimately, we think that about 8,000 amateur astronomers built Cookbook cameras.

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Richard Berry operates The Cookbook Camera Home Page in support of
amateur astronomers who build their own CCD cameras.