Best Astrophotography Mounts (2024)

best astrophotography mounts

 

Your telescope mount is the heart of your entire astrophotography system. Its job is to accurately track the apparent rotation of the night sky and allow you to capture long-exposure images.

The type of mount needed for astrophotography is known as an equatorial (EQ) tracking mount. It tracks in two axes. The right ascension rotates on the axis of the celestial pole, while the declination allows you to point anywhere in the sky.

A quality telescope mount is an absolute must. A poor, unreliable EQ mount will cause a lot of frustration and make astrophotography a seemingly impossible feat. 
 

While a telescope mount is often the most expensive purchase of your entire kit, smaller options that work incredibly well with a lightweight imaging system are available.

As with all aspects of building a deep-sky astrophotography setup, choosing the right mount for you will depend on your specific needs and desired user experience. 

Highlights

If you are looking to purchase a new astrophotography mount, I have the following recommendations based on my personal experiences. Each of these models has been tested extensively (by me) and has produced several fantastic astrophotography images.

deep-sky astrophotography

With the right astrophotography mount, you can focus on your projects without worrying about tracking and guiding issues. 

Best Astrophotography Mounts for Beginners

While people like to debate which telescope mount is considered ‘best,’ the reality is that the answer depends on the user. However, I think we can all appreciate a product that delivers reliable results and offers incredible value for your dollar. 
 
With that being said, this article provides some practical suggestions for those looking to buy their first astrophotography mount or upgrade to a more advanced version. I have personally used all of the telescope mounts listed on this page (except the iOptron GEM45), from portable star trackers to advanced observatory-grade tracking platforms.
 
I also asked the astrophotography community on Twitter to let me know which mounts they are using and what they like/dislike about them. This created a fantastic resource of information that provides real-world insights on the most commonly used telescope mounts.
 

I have organized the astrophotography mounts by price to help you better understand what is available within your budget. Your telescope mount is the most important piece of your astrophotography equipment, and you must ensure that it is capable of handling the telescope you currently own and future upgrades. 

Best Astrophotography Mounts Under $1,000

The astrophotography mounts listed below are considered ‘star trackers.’ They are portable, battery-powered tracking mounts perfect for Nightscapes, Milky Way Photography, and even wide-field deep-sky imaging. 
 
Just because these mounts are under $1000 doesn’t mean you can’t take incredible astrophotography images with them. Some of my absolute best deep-sky images were captured using a compact refractor telescope on a portable star tracker. 
 

A star tracker is a fantastic option for those who value a portable, compact rig for travel. If you are new to astrophotography, it is a great place to start, as these mounts are much more affordable than a more robust equatorial tracking telescope mount.

star tracker mounts

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i

Best Suited For: Nightscapes, Milky-Way Photography, Wide-Field Deep-Sky Imaging

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer has been a ‘gateway’ mount for countless astrophotographers. It is a multi-function astrophotography mount that allows you to take everything from beautiful time-lapses and nightscapes to detailed deep-sky portraits of nebulae and galaxies. 

It is a very lightweight celestial tracking platform that allows you to compensate for the rotation of the Earth so you can take sharp, long-exposure images. It has several different tracking modes, including sidereal, solar, lunar, and even 12X speed tracking. 

This star tracker can handle up to 11 pounds of camera and telescope gear, so you’ll need to keep that in mind when deciding which imaging system you intend to use it with. This is a fantastic option for those using a compact refractor telescope like the William Optics RedCat 51

Star Adventurer 2i

I photographed the Andromeda Galaxy using the Star Adventurer 2i and a RedCat 51 telescope.

The ‘Pro Pack’ includes a counterweight to help you balance your camera, lens (or telescope) for smooth tracking. I have found exposures of up to 3 minutes are possible (without autoguiding) when the load is well balanced. 

While the Star Adventurer can accurately track the night sky, it does not include a computerized GoTo function that finds objects in the sky for you. If this feature is important to you, there is another variation of this astrophotography mount coming up. 

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

Best Suited For: Nightscapes, Milky-Way Photography, Wide-Field Deep-Sky Imaging

Like the Star Adventurer, the iOptron SkyGuider Pro is lightweight and portable yet does not include GoTo functionality. It also shares the same maximum payload capacity of 11 pounds and can reliably track the apparent motion of the night sky. 

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro was the very first star tracker I ever used for astrophotography, and it was a real eye-opener for me at the time. Thanks to their extreme portability, I was blown away by the number of new creative projects available to me. 

This mount can handle a small telescope or a telephoto camera lens without issue. After several years of use, the one downside I found with the iOptron SkyGuider Pro was that the RA clutch could become locked so tightly that it was difficult to release it.

In 2019, iOptron rolled out the iPolar electronic polar alignment accessory to compliment the SkyGuider Pro’s functionality. I found it to work quite well, although it adds additional steps to a relatively simple process (of manual polar alignment). 

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi

Best Suited For: Nightscapes, Milky-Way Photography, Wide-Field Deep-Sky Imaging

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer GTi is a highly portable star tracker that was designed for astrophotography. It allows you to take long-exposure images of space by tracking the apparent movement of the night sky.

Unlike the original Star Adventurer, the GTi model can also find deep-sky objects in the night sky using the SynScan GoTo system. It includes a dedicated WiFi-connected smartphone app and can be used with autoguiding. 

This highly portable (battery-powered) star tracker feels like a miniature version of the robust Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro. It includes all of the advanced features of a full-fledged GoTo equatorial telescope mount in a smaller package.

Star Adventurer GTi

I used the Star Adventurer GTi to photograph the Blue Horsehead Nebula.

My favorite way to use the GTi is with the ASIAIR smartphone app, where I can utilize plate-solving to locate objects in space. To use this feature, be sure to pick up this cable to control the mount with the ASIAIR device. 

Best Astrophotography Mounts Between $1,000 and $3,000

This is the most populated category of astrophotography mounts and where many people spend time making their decisions. In this price range, you can purchase a reliable computerized equatorial tracking telescope mount that will last for years.

For example, I purchased a used Sky-Watcher HEQ5 SynScan Pro in 2014, and it still works perfectly nearly 10 years later after heavy use. While there are many great choices in this price range, I highly recommend the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro as the overall best option in this category.

If portability and a small form factor are important to you, you may want to consider the ZWO AM5 strain wave drive mount. The AM5 does not require a counterweight for payloads of up to 28 pounds.

astrophotography mounts

 

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

Best Suited For: Deep-Sky Imaging, Solar System Imaging

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R is a great all-around astrophotography mount. It is the mount behind some of the best amateur astrophotography images taken over the last 5 years. 

It features an impressive 44-pound payload capacity and supports autoguiding for precise tracking accuracy. It is a computerized GoTo equatorial telescope mount with an internal database of deep-sky objects. 

I have been enjoying my Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro telescope mount since 2018 and have never had any issues. I have used it in the heart of winter (-15C) and the heat of summer, and it is unstoppable. 

You can control this mount using the included hand controller or connect it to your computer via a USB cable for complete control. I enjoy using the EQ6-R Pro with the ASIAIR and my tablet (with this connection cable).

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro is available at Agena Astro.

It is a great value and will serve you well, no matter which telescope you choose to use with it. The one downside of the EQ6-R is the weight of the mount head (38 pounds), as it is quite heavy to move around. 

Key Features

  • 44-pound payload capacity
  • GoTo mount with built-in USB PC control
  • Autoguide port
  • Sturdy carry handle
  • D/V saddle plate
  • Built-in illuminated polar scope
  • 42,000+ object database
  • Heavy-duty Steel tripod

ZWO AM5 Strainwave Drive Mount

Best Suited For: Deep-Sky Imaging, Solar System Imaging

The ZWO AM5 is an incredible telescope mount in this category because it provides an impressive maximum payload capacity in a small package. The strainwave design is a new technology that does not require a counterweight (up to 28 pounds) to function properly. 

It is a great choice for anyone already using the ZWO ASIAIR device to control their astro-imaging sessions. The mount can be controlled via the ASIAIR smartphone app, including the handy Sky Atlas mode that uses plate solving for pointing accuracy. 

The best part about the ZWO AM5 is how portable and lightweight it is. I bring this mount on trips to star parties that involve air travel. It is small enough to fit in my personal item (backpack) on the plane!

ZWO AM5 Mount

The ZWO AM5 Strain Wave Drive Mount is available at Agena Astro.

One thing to keep in mind about a strain wave drive mount like this is the overall balance of the mount and tripod. While the mount works great without a counterweight, you will need to ensure that the tripod base is stable enough not to tip over. 

Also, unlike a traditional German equatorial mount, you can not unlock the clutches of the AM5 to balance the telescope. For this reason, it is important that you send the mount to the home position before turning it off. 

Key Features

  • No Counterweight (for loads up to 28 lbs)
  • Guiding Error Between 0.6-0.8 
  • Extremely Portable & Lightweight
  • Functions in EQ/AZ Modes
  • WiFi Connection 
  • ASCOM Compatible
  • Vixen + Losmandy Dovetail Mounts
  • Flawless Function with ASIAIR
  • Up to 44 lbs payload (with counterweight)

Witch Head Nebula

I captured the Witch Head Nebula using the ZWO AM5 Strain Wave Drive Mount. 

More Strain Wave Options

If you like the idea of a compact astrophotography mount that doesn’t require a counterweight, plenty of other strain wave mounts are available. ZWO makes a smaller version of the AM5 (the ZWO AM3) that is equally as hassle-free but with a slightly smaller payload capacity (17.5 pounds).

iOptron, Pegasus Astro, and Sky-Watcher all have strain wave drive telescope mounts available at varying sizes and payload capacities. I will be demoing the Sky-Watcher Wave 100i strain wave mount in the spring of 2024, so stay tuned for my results using that model. 

strain wave mounts

iOptron GEM45 Mount with iPolar

The iOptron GEM45 mount has an impressive 2.5 payload-to-mount weight ratio, with a rated maximum payload capacity of 45 lbs. This compact, full-featured GoTo equatorial telescope mount weighs just  17.5 lbs.

It includes the handy integrated iPolar electronic polar alignment scope, which allows you to polar align the GEM45 even when you can’t see Polaris. The quick-lock drive engagement system features large levers, making it easy to snap its drive gears into place (even if you are wearing gloves in the winter).

The 6″ dual dovetail saddle can accommodate Losmandy and Vixen-style dovetail plates, and the internal cable management system helps prevent cable snags.

iOptron GEM45

The iOptron GEM45 equatorial telescope mount is available at Agena Astro. 

Key Features

  • Quick-lock Gear Clutches
  • Low periodic error (< ± 7 arc seconds)
  • Max payload capacity: 45 lbs
  • Go2Nova Hand Controller
  • Internal iPolar electronic polar scope
  • 6″ Losmandy-D & Vixe dual saddle
  • 1.75″ Stainless Steel Tripod or optional Tri-pier
  • Included Hard case

While I have not had a chance to test the iOptron GEM45 for myself yet, I did reach out to the AstroBackyard audience on X to validate the positive user experience the owners of this astrophotography mount have had. 

Best Astrophotography Mounts Above $3,000

Telescope mounts in this category are considered ‘observatory-grade.’ These are high-end, sophisticated pieces of equipment designed for precise tracking of the night sky and reliable autoguiding.

Astrophotography mounts in this category are all best suited for deep-sky and solar system imaging (planet photography). They are capable of precise tracking using large telescopes with long focal lengths. 

They are also much heavier than the previous models listed, so you would not want to buy one of these if you plan on traveling with your gear. Many people permanently mount these tracking mounts to a pier inside a personal observatory.

Investing in a telescope mount of this caliber means that you are serious about your astrophotography for the long haul. The lightest maximum payload capacity in this group is 70 pounds, meaning you can pretty much attach any telescope you want to them. 

observatory class mounts

iOptron CEM70

Best Suited For: Deep-Sky Imaging, Solar System Imaging

The iOptron is the follow-up mount after the widely enjoyed iOptron CEM60 center balance equatorial mount. As the name suggests, the CEM70 has a maximum payload capacity of 70 pounds for a wide assortment of astronomy gear. 

I had a great experience with the younger brother of this mount (CEM60), and it was the first telescope mount I ever controlled using a PC instead of a hand controller. You can use the iOptron commander software to control the mount with your favorite image capture software. 

iOptron CEM70

The iOptron CEM70 is available at Agena Astro.

The CEM70 includes an internal iOpton iPolar electronic polar scope to help you polar align the telescope mount. The spring-loaded Vixen/Losmandy dual saddle plate can accommodate various telescopes regardless of the dovetails they are using. 

Key Features

  • Center-balanced equatorial mount (CEM) for natural stability
  • Maximum payload capacity of 70 lbs
  • Integrated iPolar electronic polar scope
  • Go2Nova hand controller with built-in heater
  • High precision tracking with low periodic error (PE)<±3.5 arcsec
  • Permanent periodic error correction (PPEC)
  • 32-channel Global Positioning System (GPS)
  • Advanced cable management system with more choices
  • Spring-loaded 8″ Vixen/Losmandy dual saddle

Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro

Best Suited For: Deep-Sky Imaging, Solar System Imaging

I have been using the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro since 2019, and it has proven to be a reliable workhorse in all weather conditions. In fact, I have left this telescope mount outdoors for over a year straight (using a 365 cover) without any issues. 

The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro can handle large telescope systems up to 110 pounds. It uses a streamlined design and improved motor positioning to allow for dual belt drives on both axes. This results in minimal backlash and significantly reduces periodic error.

Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro

The Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro is available at Agena Astro.

It also features an integrated thru-mount cabling system to help you keep your system clean and avoid any cable snags during operation. I regularly control the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro mount using the ASIAIR mobile app on my smartphone and tablet. 

If you are upgrading from the EQ6-R Pro to the EQ8, keep in mind that you will now need to use some sort of electronically assisted polar alignment tool to polar align the mount. This model does not include an internal polar finder scope like the EQ6. 

Key Features

  • 110-Pound Payload Capacity
  • Belt drive On Both Axes
  • Integrated Cable Management System
  • SynScan V5 hand controller with a 42,000+ object database
  • D-style dovetail saddle
  • 2 x 22-pound counterweights
  • Built-in USB PC control

I captured the planet Jupiter using the Sky-Watcher EQ8-R Pro. 

Sky-Watcher CQ-350

Best Suited For: Deep-Sky Imaging, Solar System Imaging

If you are looking for something with a large payload capacity but doesn’t require a forklift to set up, the Sky-Watcher CQ-350 is for you. This model has an impressive maximum payload capacity of 77 pounds, meaning it is capable of tracking the sky with your large OTAs attached. 

Sky-Watcher created this equatorial mount to fill the payload capacity gap between the popular EQ6-R Pro and the EQ8-R Pro GoTo mounts. The CQ-350 includes a high-precision hybrid stepper motor, spring-loaded worm gears, synchronous wheel, and belt drive modes. 

Sky-Watcher CQ-350

The Sky-Watcher CQ-350 is available at Agena Astro. 

I have used this telescope mount to carry some of my heaviest astrophotography telescopes, including the Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 APO shown below. It should come as no surprise that the CQ-350 performs as well as all of the other Sky-Watcher mounts I have used in the past.

In terms of portability, the CQ-350 is refreshingly light, considering its size. Due to its innovative design, The mount head is 6 pounds lighter than the one on the EQ6-R. 

Key Features

  • 77-pound payload capacity
  • GoTo mount with built-in USB PC control
  • Belt drives provide minimal backlash and significantly reduce periodic error
  • Stepper motors have no internal gearbox, further reducing backlash
  • D/V saddle plate to handle a wide variety of OTAs
  • 42,000+ object database
  • Heavy-duty steel tripod for rock-solid performance
  • Two 22-pound counterweights

    astrophotography telescope

    The Sky-Watcher CQ-350 Computerized Telescope Mount with a Sky-Watcher Esprit 150 riding on top. 

Tracking Accuracy and Autoguiding

All of the astrophotography mounts listed on this page are capable of the precise tracking accuracy needed for deep-sky astrophotography. The tracking can be improved using autoguiding, the process of measuring star movement to send correction pulses to the telescope mount. 

There are several ways to go about this process, from running software called PHD2 Guiding to utilizing the mult-star guiding function on the ASIAIR smartphone app. These tools measure the movement of a guide star (or multiple stars) to correct the tracking accuracy of your telescope mount. 

PHD2 Guiding Graph

It is easy to get caught up in the measurements and numbers in these tools. The total RMS (root-mean-square) error (measured in arc seconds) is one of the values people seem to obsess over. Generally, a total RMS error of under 1.0 is considered ‘good’ for most systems.

All of the telescope mounts on this page are capable of excellent autoguiding (even the star trackers) when set up properly. The ultimate judge of a mount’s tracking accuracy with autoguiding is the size and shape of the stars in your images (round and tight). 

The truth is that when your telescope mount is accurately polar aligned and balanced, the default settings of your autoguiding software are usually best. 

Final Thoughts

When I began my astrophotography journey, the telescope mount was the biggest investment I had to make early on. It was a scary moment because I was committing to learning the hobby and spending good money to ‘get in the game.’

I ended up purchasing a Celestron Advanced Series CG-5 (now the Celestron AVX) for about $800. While this telescope did provide me with my first successful deep-sky images, it failed after only a few years of use. 

My next telescope mount was a Sky-Watcher HEQ-5 Pro SynScan that I purchased on the used market for $700. I continue to use that mount to this day. The bottom line is that the Sky-Waytcher telescope mounts are nearly bulletproof, and I highly recommend them.

If you are looking for something ultra-portable, the ZWO AM5 (or even smaller AM3) are fantastic options in 2024. I hope that this article has helped you make your decision!


 

Trevor Jones is a deep-sky astrophotographer and a valued member of the RASC. His passion is to inspire others to start their astrophotography journey on his YouTube Channel, so they can appreciate the night sky as much as he does. His images have been featured in astronomy books and online publications, including the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD).

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