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Choosing a Star Tracker for Astrophotography

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When it comes to astrophotography, a star tracker allows you to take better images. Your exposure lengths are no longer limited to 30-seconds or less due to a moving sky, and you can dial back camera settings like ISO and F-stop.

Equatorial camera mounts are designed to align with the polar axis of the night sky so you can take long-exposure images that are free of star trailing. Astrophotography demands long-exposure tracked images to collect as much signal (light) as possible, and that is exactly what a star tracker allows you to do.

This summer, I had the opportunity to review a new star tracker for astrophotography, the Fornax Mounts LighTrack II. From the mechanical design to the polar alignment procedure, this portable tracking camera mount is very different from any astrophotography mount I have ever used before.

It created the perfect opportunity to compare this camera tracker against some of the competing models in this category, in terms of overall user experience and performance. In this post, I’ll discuss the topic of using a star tracker for astrophotography, and which one I like using most.  

star trackers

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro, Fornax Mounts LighTrack II, and iOptron SkyTracker Pro

The star trackers shown above are capable of accurately tracking the night sky for long-exposure night sky photography. Each of them has their own strengths and weaknesses, from the portability factor to maximum payload capacity. I’ll do my best to explain why the overall user experience is the number one factor to consider when choosing a portable tracking camera mount.

How to Use a Star Tracker

A star tracker’s job is to match the rotation of the Earth so that you can take long exposure images (at nearly any focal length) of the night sky. To properly track the stars that appear to move across the night sky each night, a star tracker must be polar aligned and balanced.

To polar align an equatorial mount for astrophotography (including a small camera tracker), you need to adjust the altitude and azimuth of the base so that the polar axis of the mount is aligned with the celestial pole. In the northern hemisphere, we have the advantage of using the north star, Polaris, to aid in this process.

portable tracking mount

A portable star tracker with a ball head and DSLR camera attached.

Without using a star tracker, the stars in the night sky will begin to trail after about 15-30 seconds, depending on the focal length of the lens used. This is because the Earth is spinning on its axis, while the night sky is fixed. Amateur photographers using a stationary tripod can use the 500 rule as a guide for choosing the ideal shutter speed, but a star tracker removes this limitation altogether. 

When a tracking camera mount is used, a small motor slowly rotates your camera in right-ascension, effectively matching the apparent movement of the night sky, and freezing it in its tracks. The image below shows you what a 3-minute exposure using a 400mm lens would like without using a star tracker.  how to use a star tracker

Long exposure images (180-seconds) shot at 400mm with and without tracking. 

Luckily for amateur astrophotographers and photographers, there are a lot of great star tracker options to choose from these days. Unlike a heavy equatorial telescope mount, a star tracker is portable, small, and lightweight. Because of their small size and compact profile, they’re usually a lot more affordable, too. 

The star tracker category includes small EQ mounts that can carry a camera and lens combo, whether it’s for wide-angle Milky Way photography or deep sky imaging with a telephoto lens. Wide-angle nightscapes and Milky Way panoramas are the star trackers strong point. These types of projects usually involve traveling to a remote location, where packing light is necessary. 

If you’ve ever seen a detailed photo of the Milky Way like the one below, chances are the photographer used a star tracker to collect sharp, long exposure images with their camera and lens. 

The Milky Way

The Milky Way from a dark sky location. Stack of 60 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 1600. 

A star tracker will usually include a polar scope, which is used to help find the north celestial pole and adjust the mount accordingly. A star tracker that has been properly polar aligned will match the exact apparent rotation of the night sky to freeze deep sky objects in place.

Don’t expect these little units to carry a heavy telescope, although small refractors are an option if you’ve got a counterweight system to help balance things out. As you’ll soon see with the Fornax Mounts LighTrack II, a counterweight system is often an additional option from the base star tracker package. 

In fact, a lot of the star trackers available online today come in a potentially confusing number of packages and bundles. My advice is that you invest in a system that can not only handle your intended payload (and then some) but also provide you with features that make imaging in the field easier and more enjoyable. 

Popular Models in the “Star Tracker” Category

If you are a beginner in the world of astrophotography (see my beginners guide), investing in a tracking camera mount is the single biggest advancement you can make in terms of gear. You can now let the exposure time do the heavy lifting without relying on fast optics and high ISO settings to collect a decent amount of signal. 

The following tracking camera mounts share many similarities, including the ability to track the night sky at different speeds. Before investing in a dedicated star tracker for landscape or deep sky astrophotography, make sure the bundle you order includes everything you need to mount your camera and lens.

star tracker for astrophotography

Which one should you invest your hard-earned money in for astrophotography? That will depend on the type of user-experience you are looking for, and my goal for this article is to highlight the key differences in the user experience for each mount. 

If you’re just looking to shoot wide-angle astrophotography using a camera lens, I’ve got good news for you. All of the star trackers mentioned above are capable of accurately tracking the night sky for incredible long exposure images like the one below (including the most affordable option, the iOptron SkyTracker Pro).

Cygnus stars

Canon T3i and Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens on the iOptron SkyTracker Pro. 

What They Do Best

These mounts are primarily designed for wide-angle astrophotography, meaning projects like Milky Way panoramas or mid-range focal length compositions using a telephoto lens in the 100-200mm range. That’s not to say that you can’t use a star tracker for high magnification deep sky imaging, but that will demand the most of your tracker, and a require a diligent setup routine.

The portable nature of a star tracker often leads to some of the most memorable deep sky astrophotography sessions in the field, as they offer you the freedom to travel to a dark sky location without a trunk full of gear. One of the most incredible astrophotography adventures of my life was setting up an iOptron SkyGuider Pro and William Optics RedCat 51 telescope to capture the Carina Nebula from Costa Rica. 

wide field astrophotography

The Carina Nebula from Costa Rica (9-minute exposure using a star tracker and small telescope).

It simply wasn’t possible to bring my computerized telescope mount to this location (on a plane), yet a star tracker fit in my carry-on bag and allowed me to collect tracked images of the night sky from the middle of the resort. These are the kinds of adventures you can expect when you invest in a portable star tracker for astrophotography.

Key Benefits of a Star Tracker

  • Quick Setup and Alignment
  • Lightweight and Portable
  • Great for Travel
  • Built-in Battery Power*
  • Great for Camera Lens Astrophotography

* The Fornax Mounts LighTrack II requires an external 12V power source.

tracking camera mounts

From my personal experience using star trackers for astrophotography from the backyard and beyond, I believe the absolute most important aspect to consider is the user experience. If the star tracker is not easy to use in the field, or the process of setting up takes too long, you won’t use it as much. That’s all there is to it. 

As any experienced amateur astrophotographer will tell you, your motivation to stay up all night and image will vary. Any additional friction between you and a successful image has a way of affecting your decision process of stepping outside on a less-than-perfect night.

Don’t forget about the tear-down process either. If the clouds roll in and it looks like rain is coming, a lengthy teardown routine can turn into a stressful situation. Star trackers can usually be carried inside the house with all elements attached in a moments notice. The same can not be said for a full-blown deep sky astrophotography kit

A star tracker should allow you to quickly get up-and-running under a clear night sky. It should be a pain-free experience that provides the freedom and flexibility to take amazing astrophotography images wherever, and whenever you want.

astrophotography

All of these photos were captured using a portable camera tracker mount.

Which Star Tracker is Right For You?

I am hesitant to state which star tracker is “best”, as I have found them all to have their strengths and weakness in terms of user experience in the field. I have not tested the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro mount, but the consensus from users online is that it is a great value for the money. You can see the results others are getting with this mount on Flickr.

I often see comments from beginners about being limited to a maximum exposure time using a particular mount before the stars begin to trail. My honest opinion is that these situations are almost always due to user error in the polar alignment and balancing procedure.

Each and every star tracker I have ever used for astrophotography was capable of sharp, 3-minute exposures using a focal length of up to 200mm. A portable star tracker must be accurately polar aligned and balanced to work properly. This may seem obvious to most people, but time and time again I see poor results being blamed on the hardware itself. 

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro with a telescope attached. 

My portable star tracking mounts have traveled with me to some amazing places and captured some of my favorite astrophotos. Both of the iOptron star trackers I am about to cover are extremely popular in the amateur astrophotography and nightscape photography community, and for good reason.

iOptron SkyTracker Pro

If you’ve watched any of my previous videos, you’ve probably seen the iOptron SkyTracker Pro in action. This ultra-lightweight star tracker is iOptron’s latest variation of their incredibly popular and affordable wide-angle astrophotography mount.

The SkyTracker Pro (not to be confused with the SkyGuider Pro) weighs just 2.6 pounds and houses everything you need for long exposure nightscapes in a little red (or black) box. A plastic box that is, with adorably simple controls to accelerate the RA axis to your intended target.

iOptron SkyTracker Pro and Camera Lens

The iOptron SkyTracker Pro with a DSLR camera and wide-angle lens attached. 

  • Weight: 1.5 lbs.
  • Max Payload: 6.6 lbs
  • Max Useful Focal Length: 200mm
  • Built-In Battery: Yes (Li-Poly 3.7V)
  • Built-In Polarscope: Yes
  • Autoguider Input: No

This camera mount was designed for wide-field nightscape images using a DSLR camera and lens. Many people have had great success using the SkyTracker with an ultra-wide-angle lens like the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8, all the way up to some heavier glass such as the Rokinon 135mm F/2. 

It’s the most affordable star tracker I’ve used, and it has delivered exceptional results using a number of different camera lenses. One such instance was the time I used the SkyTracker Pro with my Canon EF 24-105mm F/4L Lens to shoot Mars and the Pleiades star cluster in the same frame. 

Planet Mars and Pleiades

The Planet Mars alongside the Pleiades Star Cluster. iOptron SkyTracker Pro and 24-105mm lens @ 105mm.

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

The SkyGuider Pro is a big step up from the Tracker, offering a heavier payload capacity, a more robust design, and the ability to autoguide your images. The SkyGuider Pro is a top contender in this category with stellar reviews from experienced nightscape photographers.

This portable EQ mount fits in the palm of your hand, yet can handle up to 11 lbs of imaging gear. With the counterweight kit attached, the SkyGuider has no trouble with larger telephoto lenses and even small refractor telescopes such as the William Optics RedCat 51.

deep sky astrophotography

The North America Nebula in Cygnus. iOptron SkyGuider Pro with William Optics RedCat 51 attached. 

  • Weight: 2.2 lbs.
  • Max Payload: 11 lbs
  • Max Useful Focal Length: 400mm
  • Built-In Battery: Yes (Li-Poly 3.7V)
  • Built-In Polarscope: Yes (Illuminated)
  • Autoguider Input: Yes

Beginners often get tracking and guiding mixed up or assume that they both mean the same thing. Tracking is the act of matching the rotation of the Earth using an RA (right ascension) motor, with the axis of the mount aligned with the celestial pole. Guiding is a specialized astrophotography technique that uses a secondary camera to lock-on to a guide star and sends small commands to the mount to improve tracking accuracy. 

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro includes an ST-4 autoguide port that allows you to autoguide using the appropriate cabling and software on your computer. Although autoguiding is a powerful feature that allows for even longer exposures (and the benefits of dithering), it requires additional hardware to run. 

RedCat 51 mounted to an iOptron SkyGuider Pro

The William Optics RedCat 51 is a great match for the SkyGuider Pro. 

For smaller loads, such as a DSLR camera and 50mm lens, you can simply attach a ball head to the 1/4″  threaded socket on the mount. Heavier camera lenses or small telescopes will need to be mounted to the declination plate and utilize the counterweight system (shown above.)

For those that prefer to polar align their SkyGuider Pro electronically, the iOptron iPolar device was designed to fit neatly inside of this camera tracker. Be advised, that once you make this modification to the mount (or oder a version with the iPolar included), you lose an element of portability with the need for dedicated software control. 

If you’re thinking about diving into the world of telescopes for astrophotography, I’d recommend the RedCat 51 Petzval APO to compliment the SkyGuider. This F/4.9 quadruplet apochromatic refractor is exceptionally sharp and delivers incredible wide-field images with a focal length of 250mm.

William Optics RedCat 51

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer

I have not had the pleasure of using a Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer mount myself, but I have seen a number of them in use first-hand at star parties and astronomy meet-ups. For a good look at the features and setup process of this mount, see Dylan O’Donnells video. 

When comparing the specs between the iOptron SKyGuider Pro, and the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro, you’ll notice a number of similarities. For example, the “Pro Pack” includes a counterweight kit, wedge base, and a built-in illuminated polar scope.

sky-watcher star adventurer mount

  • Weight: 2.2 lbs.
  • Max Payload: 11 lbs
  • Max Useful Focal Length: 400mm
  • Built-In Battery: Yes (4 x AA)
  • Built-In Polarscope: Yes
  • Autoguider Input: Yes

The Star Adventurer includes a built-in WiFi, Android/iOS App control for those looking to control projects such as time lapses with your DSLR. Like the iOptron models I mentioned above, the Star Adventurer includes modes for solar, lunar, sidereal, and half sidereal tracking rates.

I really like that the Star Adventurer can run on 4 AA Batteries. Although it may seem like a step backward from a rechargeable li-poly battery, this feature may come in handy when your taking pictures nowhere near a source of power. Sky-Watcher reports that these batteries can power the mount for up to 72 hours, more than enough time for a night or imaging or two.

Without testing the Star Adventurer hands-on myself, I can’t say whether this mount delivers an experience that rivals the SkyGuider Pro. However, based on this video by Peter Zelinka, the process of setting up for a night of astrophotography looks to be strikingly similar.

Fornax Mounts LighTrack II

Fornax is a company based out of Hungary, and they are no stranger to astronomical equipment. Fornax has been manufacturing astronomical mounts for nearly 20 years, working on professional astronomical projects such as the HATNet Exoplanet Survey (Hungarian Automated Telescope) for discovering exoplanets.

The Fornax Mounts LighTrack II looks and acts differently than all of the other star trackers I previously mentioned. It uses a friction motor drive system that slowly sweeps an arm across the base of the mount. The fine friction strip helps the LighTrack II maintain balance, and was designed with strict production tolerances.

Like the other star trackers mentioned, the LighTrack II has 4 tracking speeds. Sidereal, Solar, Lunar, and Half. The “half” speed mode can be used to create nightscape images with terrestrial elements. For example, if you wanted to capture an interesting wide-angle landscape, but want to expose the night sky longer – you can, without the landscape being blurred.

tracking camera mount

Fornax Mounts LighTrack II.

  • Weight: 2.9 lbs.
  • Max Payload: 14 lbs
  • Max Useful Focal Length: 500mm
  • Built-In Battery: No
  • Built-In Polarscope: No (Additional Accessory)
  • Autoguider Input: Yes

The bundle I received from Fervent Astronomy included the MMW-200 wedge to mount the tracker to my tripod, and the counterweight kit (that I have not tested yet). The hardware is impressive, from the aluminum alloy components to the carbon-composite plastic housing for the electronics.

However, there are 2 colossal differences between the iOptron and Sky-Watcher camera trackers and the LighTrack II. The first is, this mount requires an external 12V power supply. There is no internal battery inside of the LighTrack II. So, if you plan on traveling with this mount you’ll need to bring a reliable battery or find an outlet and extension cord nearby.

The second is that the LighTrack II will only track your subject for 107 minutes, before having to return the tracking arm to its starting position. Luckily, you can use the panning control knob of your ball head to keep the camera stationary during this process.

The good news is, once you’ve powered the LighTrack II up, you’ll benefit from incredibly accurate unguided performance. Fornax lists that peak-to-peak unguided tracking error is less than 2 arcseconds in 8 minutes. I can confirm that the unguided performance of the Fornax LighTrack II is incredible and that the 3-minute images I’ve captured at 400mm were razor sharp.

Fornax Mounts LighTrack II example image

I captured the Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae on the Fornax LighTrack II (William Optics RedCat 51 refractor).

Capturing the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula region with the Fornax LighTrack II was one of my first experiences using the mount, and it was a good one. The images were 3-minutes each at an effective focal length of 400mm with my camera system, and the unguided exposures were excellent. 

Here is a look a single 180-second sub exposure using the LighTrack II with my Canon 60Da, William Optics RedCat 51, and the OPT Triad Ultra filter. I’d feel comfortable going to 5-minutes, wouldn’t you?

Maximum exposure time

A single 3-minute, unguided exposure using the Fornax Mounts LighTrack II.

If you’re comparing the Fornax Mounts LighTrack II with the iOptron SkyGudier Pro, the accessories needed to complete a “full” package will send you well past the price of the SkyGuider Pro. The iOptron SkyGuider Pro full package includes the wedge, polar scope, and counterweight package. These items must be added on to the original price of the LighTrack II mount and purchased as a bundle. 

It’s worth mentioning, that perhaps the LighTrack II should not be in the star tracker category at all. Due to its increased payload capacity, autoguiding capability, and accurate tracking, you may want to consider it to be a bridge between a camera tracker and a traditional equatorial telescope mount. 

Star Tracker Comparison Chart

Here are the bare bones specs of the star trackers mentioned in this post. The listed “longest useful focal length” is merely a point a reference. In reality, I believe all of these trackers could handle a 2-minute exposure using an even longer lens.

BrandMountWeightMaximum PayloadMax. Useful Focal LengthBuilt-in BatteryAutoguide Port
iOptronSkyTracker Pro1.5 lbs.6.6 lbs.200mmYesNo
Sky-WatcherStar Adventurer2.2 lbs.10 lbs.300mmYesYes
iOptronSkyGuider Pro2.2 lbs.11 lbs.400mmYesYes
Fornax MountsLighTrack II2.8 lbs.13.2 lbs.500mmNoYes

Final Thoughts

I believe that any mount that wants to compete in the “star tracker” category should have a built-in power option. I realize that many people are accustomed to traveling with an external power supply for various devices, but I am not one of them.

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro (and SkyTracker Pro) include an internal, rechargeable, li-poly 3.7V battery that can be charged with a mini-USB charging cable. This simple design feature means that I’ll reach for the SkyGuider when traveling light, or setting up for a brief imaging session. If you want to travel to a remote location with the LighTrack II, be prepared to power the mount using the cigarette lighter plug from your car. 

In the end, the best camera tracker for astrophotography will always be the one you use the most. You can have the nicest equipment in the world, but if it doesn’t help you accomplish your final goal (pictures) on a consistent basis, it’s time to reflect on why you got into this crazy hobby in the first place.

best star tracker

Other Popular Star Trackers Available

There are new tracking camera mounts popping up every year. The models discussed in this post are not the only options available. Here is a short list of some of the other star trackers available today:

star tracker comparison chart

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Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Review

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The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro is a computerized equatorial telescope mount with GoTo capabilities. This equatorial (EQ) mount is capable of providing precise, accurate tracking of the night sky, and is suitable for long-exposure astrophotography. 

The core specifications of this equatorial mount include having a built-in ST-4 autoguider port, a payload capacity of 44 pounds, and a SynScan computer hand controller with an extensive database of objects. 

I have been using the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro telescope mount since October 2018, and have used it to capture several deep sky images of nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters in space. In this post, I’ll share some of my favorite features of this EQ mount that I have experienced over several imaging sessions in the backyard.

Whether you already own the EQ6 and are looking to tap into more of its features, or are trying to decide which equatorial mount is best for your visual observation or astrophotography goals, this article should offer up some useful input from someone who’s been in your shoes. 

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Review

The Veil Nebula captured using the EQ6-R Pro telescope setup shown on the right.

Related Video: My first run with the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro in the backyard

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Review

Before we dive into some of the interesting features you may not have known about, here is an overview of exactly what the “EQ6” is capable of. As a preface, it’s worth noting that I use this mount for astrophotography exclusively, and I am in the northern hemisphere.

For those in the southern hemisphere, the process is very similar all around, aside from polar aligning the mount with the south celestial pole (SCP).

Before stepping up to the EQ6-R, I used a number of intermediate level astrophotography mounts, including the slightly smaller HEQ5 Pro SynScan model. 

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

Breakdown of the Gear Shown Above:

ItemModel
Equatorial MountSky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro SynScan
Imaging TelescopeSky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO
Imaging CameraZWO ASI294MC Pro
Autoguiding Scope60mm Starfield Guide Scope
Autoguiding CameraZWO ASI290mm Mini
AccessoriesQHY PoleMaster

The Basics

The EQ6-R Pro includes a SynScan hand controller with an LCD display that gives you control it’s features and basic functions. The left and right keys on the keypad control the Right Ascension (RA) axis, while the up and down arrows are used to control the Declination (DEC) axis. 

You can control the slew speed by selecting the RATE shortcut button (2) on the keypad, as it is useful to make large movements at a high speed, and subtle adjustments using a slow speed. The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro has 10 slew speeds for complete control over the movement of each axis. 

Before powering up the EQ6-R, your telescope should be in the home position. This means that the EQ head is leveled on the tripod, and the RA axis is pointed towards the north celestial pole (NCP). The counterweight should be at its lowest position, and the telescope should be pointing towards the NCP.  You can then turn on the mount and select the operation mode. 

For those interested in astrophotography, you will only ever want to use the mount in EQ mode. 

Iris Nebula

The Iris Nebula in Cepheus captured using the setup shown on this page.

With the RA and DEC clutches locked, and counterweight(s) attached, you can mount your telescope on top of the EQ head. This is accomplished by fastening the mounting plate of your telescope to the saddle, which accepts both D and V-style mounting plates.

Getting Started

Once the SynScan system has initialized, you can enter in the geographic coordinates of your observing site.

This involves entering the latitude and longitude coordinates of your current location using the cursor on the LCD display and the keypad. Then, you will enter in your current time zone, which for me, happens to be UTC -4 in southern Ontario. 

You can also enter in your current elevation, which which is used for atmospheric refraction compensation (generally, the higher your elevation, the better). Next is setting the current date and time, and whether you are currently on daylight savings time.  

Once all of these important details have been entered (so the mount understands what is available in the sky from your location), you reach the mount alignment  process, with the “Begin Alignment” dialog served up on the LCD screen. 

SynScan Hand Controller

The SynScan Hand Controller set to EQ Mode. 

Use the “Park” Feature

This simple, yet useful feature automatically aligns your telescope mount in both axis at the beginning of your imaging session. It is not exclusive to the EQ6-R Pro, yet it is easy to miss if you don’t follow the instructions in the manual on your first few runs. 

This feature is located under the “Utility Function” menu and asks you to turn off the mount after the park position has been confirmed. The next time you turn the mount on, you will see a dialog on the LCD display asking if you would like to start from the park position.

This is a handy feature that I did not personally take advantage of for the first few months of ownership with the mount. It is nice to confirm the home position when setting up, especially before beginning your polar alignment process.

The EQ6-R is Easy to Polar Align

Whether you use the built-in polar scope with the illuminated reticle, or use a QHY PoleMaster device, polar aligning the EQ6-R is a breeze. 

This largely due to the fact that the EQ6-6 includes large, Alt/Az adjustment bolts with comfortable handles. Fine tuning the polar axis of this equatorial telescope mount is possible thanks to these convenient controls.

The built-in polar finder scope with illuminated reticle allows you to accurately polar align the mount without the need for additional software or accessories. You can either use a third party  mobile app like “Polar Finder” to find out the current position of Polaris, or simply use the information displayed on the SynScan hand controller. 

The SynScan hand controller displays the position of Polaris in polar scopes field of view (FOV). You need to imagine that the large circle in the FOV of the polar scope as a clock’s face with 12:00 sitting at the top.

Then, it’s simply a matter of adjusting the Alt/Az bolts of the mount to place Polaris in the “HH:MM” position provided.

Using a PoleMaster with the EQ6-R

If you don’t like getting underneath the polar scope for a real time view of the NCP or SCP, the QHY PoleMaster is a great option. This electronic polar scope uses a small camera to display the region surrounding the north (or south) celestial pole. 

Using the live feed through the camera, you can fine tune your Alt/Az adjustments in a very precise manner. The PoleMaster requires the appropriate adapter (this is the one you need) to fasten it to the polar axis.

QHY PoleMaster Adapter

Fastening the PoleMaster to the EQ6-R using the necessary adapter.

You Can Improve the Alignment Accuracy

Before running a star alignment routine, make sure that your telescope is well balanced, and that there are no loose cables that could get caught and snag on the mount. 

The alignment routine involves choosing a bright, named star from the database and centering it in your telescope eyepiece or camera. The LCD screen displays “Choose 1st Star”, at which point you can cycle through the list to find a star that is not blocked by any obstructions from your location, and press enter.

A word of caution here, once you hit enter, the mount will start to slew to the object immediately. 

From here, it’s a matter of using the arrow buttons on the keypad to center the star. Remember, you can change the slew speed at any time by pushing the “Rate” button and setting the value higher or lower. It is often useful to leverage a finder scope on your telescope when slewing to your first alignment star, as it has a much wider field of view than your primary telescope and makes finder the first star easier. 

When running through a star alignment routine, it is important to consistently center the alignment star in the eyepiece or camera’s FOV. It is beneficial to use a reticle eyepiece with a small FOV. Personally, I use the camera’s FOV and center the star on my DSLR display screen (with grid enabled), or with a cross-hair overlay in my camera control software (Astro Photography Tool).

You can run a 1,2, or 3-star alignment to improve the pointing accuracy of the telescope. This is very important when it comes to photographing deep sky objects that are nearly invisible until a long exposure image is collected. 

Tulip Nebula

The Tulip Nebula in Cygnus using the EQ6-R Pro mount for tracking.

Avoid Errors due to Mechanical Backlash

You can improve your alignment accuracy by avoiding errors due to mechanical backlash. Backlash is present in all equatorial telescope mounts, and does not affect your observing enjoyment, or your long exposure images when autoguiding is employed.

To avoid introducing alignment error caused by backlash, center the alignment star ending with an UP and RIGHT directions from the keypad. If you overshoot the star using this method, use LEFT and DOWN to bring the star back down the FOV and try again.

Computerized Telescope Mount

The Stepper Motors are Quiet

If you haven’t used this particular mount first hand, you may be wondering what the EQ6-R sounds like while it is slewing. I have heard many astrophotography mounts over the years, and this one is impressively quiet. 

This mount uses stepper motors with a 1.8° step angle and 64 micro steps driven. This technical design aspect results in a quieter mount than on using servo motors.

This means that even at the maximum slew speed (9X), the mount emits a modest hum that will not wake up your neighbors. While the telescope mount is tracking, it is completely silent. It’s only when you move the RA or DEC axis at top speed that you hear a noise.

Compared to other equatorial telescope mounts I have used, the audible sound the EQ6-R Pro makes is more than acceptable. When you are partaking in a hobby that takes place (alone) outside at night, avoiding loud or unusual noises when possible is always a good idea.

In contrast, the Celestron CGX-L computerized mount is noticeably loud while slewing at top speed. If this mount is being used in a closed observatory, it’s not an issue. However, I set up my equipment in a city neighborhood backyard. Depending on the time of night, I hesitate slewing to a new target because of this trait. 

The Autoguiding Performance is Impressive

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro delivers impressive results when the built-in autoguider port is leveraged. Over the years I have maximized the tracking capabilities of my astrophotography mounts by using an auxiliary guide scope and camera to autoguide using a free software called PHD2 guiding

The EQ6-R Pro allows you to set change the default auto guide speed of the mount of 0.5X to 0.75X or 1.0X in the setup menu.  

I have experimented using a guiding rate of 1.0X , and saw little improvement to my guiding graph in PHD2 guiding over the default speed of 0.5X. The point is, you have the option of adjusting this setting if the need calls for it, and it’s a feature I’ve only recently tapped into on the EQ6-R Pro.

For a real-life example of the autoguiding performance you can expect with this mount, have a look at the screenshot below. The guiding graph shows that my total RMS error is 0.63″. Generally, a total RMS error of under 1-second means that you can expect pin-point stars in your long exposure images.

EQ6-R autoguiding graph

My autoguiding graph in PHD2 guiding using the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro SynScan mount. 

The Mount is Heavier Than it Looks

When it comes to equatorial mounts for astrophotography, being heavy is a good thing. However, I think some people that receive their EQ6-R for the first time may be a little surprised at how heavy the EQ6-R actually is (I was).

The weight of the EQ head is 38 lbs on it’s own, and the tripod adds another 16.5 lbs. Add in two 11-lb counterweights, and you’ve got a telescope rig that weighs 76.6 pounds, and is not going anywhere for a while.

Luckily, the EQ head includes a useful carry handle that I have certainly put to good use. Also, the supplied counterweight bar is retractable, which makes transporting the mount out the door of my garage a little easier. 

mount specifications

I used to carry my Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro SynScan around the yard with the telescope and counterweight attached. It was heavy and awkward, but manageable.

This is not possible with the EQ6-R, which is understandable considering the increased payload capacity (44-lbs) of the mount. To transport the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R from my detached garage to the yard, I must remove the counterweights and the telescope first.

It’s possible to lift the tripod with the EQ head attached (54.5 lbs), but this is likely too heavy for most folks. The good news is, this heavy profile means that accidentally bumping the polar alignment out of position by kicking a tripod leg is unlikely. Smaller, ultra-portable mounts like the iOptron SkyGuider Pro do not share this quality. 

You Don’t Need to “Mod” the Mount

If you’re a tinkerer, I get it. It may be tempting to you to open up the EQ mount head and take a look. I would advise against this personally, as you may do more harm then good.

I’ve seen a number of posts and videos discussing “belt-mods” and “hyper-tuning” Sky-Watcher NEQ6 and EQ6-R mounts. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend opening up the mount in hopes of tweaking performance, even if the underlying mechanics are straightforward to you.

In my experience, the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R can track accurately for 10-minute exposures (or longer) without any re-greasing or modifications to the worm gears when autoguiding is leveraged.

I suggest spending the time to get your balance and polar alignment spot-on before blaming the mount for bad tracking. It’s easy to get caught up in scrutinizing the mechanical backlash and periodic error present in the mount.

If you do dive into these advanced adjustments, you better be mechanically minded and ready to invest a “minimum of four hours” for a typical belt modification. 

astrophotography telescope

The EQ6-R with a Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO attached.

The SynScan Hand Controller gives you Extensive Options

The included SynScan hand controller includes an impressive 42,000+ object database, with almost every possible target you could ever want to observe or photograph.

The Messier object list gets a lot of use for amateur astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere, while the NGC catalog is great for pointing the telescope at more obscure nebulae and star clusters.

The database also includes IC and Caldwell catalogs, which covers most of the noteworthy subjects in the night sky. I only wish the database included the Sharpless catalog, for items such as the Tulip Nebula with no alternative designation.

To slew to these objects, it may be better to control the EQ6-R using your PC using supplementary PC-Link cable along with the appropriate ASCOM drivers and software.

I use the hand controller to align, and center my target. After a quick polar alignment routine using the QHY PoleMaster, the pointing accuracy of the mount is spot-on using just a 1-star align.

After you’re aligned and ready to observe or image an object in space, you can start by choosing a target using the “OBJECT” shortcut key, which contains the following object list:

  • Named Stars
  • Solar System
  • NGC Catalog
  • IC Catalog
  • Messier Catalog
  • Caldwell Catalog
  • SAO Catalog
  • Double Stars
  • Variable Stars
  • User Object
  • Deep Sky Tour

The deep sky tour is a very cool feature for visual observation sessions. Imagine a star party or public outreach event where you want to have the best list of targets at the ready.

This feature generates a list of the most famous deep sky objects that appear in the current night sky overhead. You simply go through the list and pick them off one by one.

The Periodic Error Correction (PEC) Feature

Periodic tracking error is present in all equatorial telescope mounts, and is a due to the design of the internal gears. The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R includes a periodic error correction (PEC) function to help correct this.

The PEC training procedure requires that you first polar align and star align the telescope mount. Then, slew to a star close to the celestial equator, and center it in the telescope eyepiece or imaging camera.

Then, navigate to the Utility Function > PEC Training mode and press enter. From here you can select the speed you would like to use for PEC training. The Sky-Watcher SynScan manual suggests using 0.125X sidereal rate for wider FOV telescopes such as the Esprit 100 ED APO.

After selecting the speed using the “1” or “2” keys, the screen will then start to display the elapsed time of the PEC training routine. Now, your job is to keep the star centered in the FOV using the left and right direction keys on the hand controller.

Once the PEC training routine has completed, the elapsed time will stop. Noe, you can select “PEC+Sidereal” as a tracking speed in the Setup menu. It is recommended to wait for at least one PEC training reply cycle to complete before you start taking your images.

Sky-Watcher SynScan Specifications

  • Object Catalog: Messier Catalog, NGC, SAO, Caldwell, Double Star, Variable Star, Named Star, Planets
  • Pointing Accuracy: Up to 5 arc-minutes RMS
  • Tracking Rate: Sidereal Rate, Solar Rate, Lunar Rate
  • PEC: PPEC (permanent PEC)
  • Database: 42,000+ Objects
  • LCD: 18 Characters X 2 Lines (adjustable contrast and backlight)
  • Keypad: Rubber with adjustable backlight
  • GPS: SynScan GPS Modular (Optional)
  • PC Connection: USB or RS-232X
  • Power Output: Power Supply Voltage – 0.7V, Max. 100mA current output

Power Supply for the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

As one Cloudy Nights forum member put it, the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro can get “cranky” if the right power supply is not used. I have experienced this issue myself, when I used an AC to DC power adapter that did not provide a minimum 4 amps of power.

These days, I use a 12V AC/DC adapter with 10 amps to power the EQ6-R when plugged in at home. Here is a picture of the exact AC/DC adapter I use with the EQ6-R, and here is a link to it on Amazon. Others have found the Pyramid PS9KX 5 Amp power supply to work well with this mount. 

Power supply for EQ6-R Pro

The AC/DC adapter I use to power the EQ6-R Pro mount from home. 

Final Thoughts

As you may have noticed, there is a lot to cover when discussing all of the features of the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro SynScan computerized telescope mount. The very first night I used the EQ6-R, I captured one of my favorite astrophotography images to date, and I knew I was in a for a long relationship with this mount. 

A reliable equatorial mount is the foundation of every great deep sky astrophotography kit, and the EQ6-R is a worthy investment for those looking for a stable, long-term solution for long-exposure imaging.

From my early days with the HEQ5 Pro to my latest session in the backyard with the EQ6, I’ve been extremely satisfied with the user experience and performance of Sky-Watcher’s affordable equatorial telescope mounts. 

astrophotography telescope mount

Pros:

  • Fantastic Tracking when Autoguiding Used
  • Quiet Stepper Motors even Slewing at 9X
  • Easy to Polar Align
  • Built-In PEC Training Feature

Cons:

  • Heavier Than it Looks
  • Intermediate Level Mount with Price to Match
  • Power Supply must be Correct or will Act Up

What Others Have Said:

“This mount is simply amazing. It is robust and tracks very well. I was taking 5 minute subs with no star trails. It is built like a tank and handles my Meade 5″ refractor with ease. The stepper motors are quiet. It’s simply a joy to use and I highly recommend it. The price is well worth it” – James S. on HPS website

“This mount is a tank. I have been doing astrophotography for several years using a lighter weight mount but I was ready to setup up to a heavier payload mount and I am very pleased.” – Ray on HPS website

twitter review

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro is Available with Free Shipping at High Point Scientific

EQ6-R Pro Review

Useful Resources:

Update the Firmware of your Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro SynScan (Sky-Watcher Website)

The Complete User Manual (Sky-Watcher SynScan PDF)

Do you use the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro for astrophotography? If so, let me know your experiences with it in the comments. To stay up to date with my latest adventures in the backyard, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter. Until next time, clear skies!

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Astrophotography Gear Update

|Blog Updates|10 Comments

Despite the excitement of a moving into a new house under Bortle Class 6 skies, I’ve had a rough start to the new year in terms of astrophotography.

The weather has not been friendly, from -30 C nights to consecutive weeks of precipitation and clouds. However, this has given me some time to get my astrophotography gear organized in the garage for my next imaging session. My weather app shows that Saturday has a chance of clear skies for about 2 hours, and I’ll be ready.

In this post, I’ll provide an update as to the astrophotography gear I’ll be using next. My goal is that you find some inspiration in this setup, and to keep you guys up to date with the latest happenings in the AstroBackyard. 

You can also stay completely up-to-date by subscribing to my newsletter: AstroBackyard Newsletter

deep sky astrophotography setup

Astrophotography Gear Update

As you progress in your journey of deep sky astrophotography, I think you’ll find that you gravitate towards equipment that delivers a painless and enjoyable experience. To me, this hobby is about more than just aperture and guiding accuracy. Yes, improving the quality of my images is very important, but its the road to get there that I think I enjoy most.

If you have been paying attention to the AstroBackyard YouTube Channel, it may appear as if I am collecting all of the latest and greatest gear to bring to show-and-tell. The truth is, if I don’t actually get a chance to use and share my experiences with these items, it’s of little value to the amateur astrophotography community.

We’re half way through the month of February, and I’ve got a staggering amount of exciting telescopes, mounts and accessories on loan for review. I’ll share more information about these products over the coming months, as I continue to educate myself about them and their intended purpose.

This post will focus on a deep sky astrophotography rig that I have set up in a semi-permanent fashion. This means that I can quickly set up this rig for some deep sky imaging if the weather provides an opening through the clouds. I do not own a permanent observatory, so everything needs to be carried from my garage to a spot in the yard.

This rig has been commissioned into action for this month based on the current temperatures and weather conditions I’ve been experiencing. Options such as a larger mount or telescope are reserved for more accommodating temperatures and predictable conditions.

Here is each piece of the deep sky astrophotography setup I have put together:

As you can see, there are some familiar faces on this setup. There are also some exciting new additions such as the Meade Deep Sky Imager IV and Xagyl Filter Wheel. I have never captured images using a filter wheel before, so this should be an eye-opening experience. 

Another noticeable change from my last  deep sky setup is the use of a monochrome astronomy camera in place of the OSC (One-Shot-Color) ZWO ASI294MC Pro. The Meade DSI IV uses the same camera sensor found in the incredibly popular ZWO ASI1600MM, the camera behind countless jaw-dropping images from Chuck Ayoub, Dylan O’Donnell, and Diego Colonello.

Let’s take a look at each piece of the rig in detail. 

Telescope Mount

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R has been an absolute pleasure to use since it arrived in the fall of 2018 from Sky-Watcher. This computerized equatorial telescope mount is reliable and capable. The EQ6 model has been refined over the years, a big improvement over my old HEQ5 Pro SynScan in terms of build quality, technology and features.

It is a step up from the HEQ5 in terms of payload capacity as well, offering a commendable 44-pound payload. This is more than enough for most of the telescopes I use for astrophotography, including the Explore Scientific ED 102 CF refractor that’s currently riding on top.

Computerized Telescope Mount

Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Computerized Equatorial Telescope Mount.

I have yet to control the EQ6-R via my computer, tasks such as star-alignment and object slewing have all been accomplished using the hand controller thus far. While browsing the Cloudy Nights forum, I discovered an incredibly helpful article by John Upton about controlling SynScan telescope mounts from your computer.

The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R I have has the new Version 5 SynScan hand controller with the USB A-Male to B Male (Printer Cable) on the bottom. This does not require the use of the PC Direct Mode when controlling the mount using Astro Photography Tool (APT).

Long story short, I plan to leverage the power of ASCOM and PC control to further automate this setup over the coming months.

Primary Imaging Telescope

Ah, the Explore Scientific ED 102 CF. My reliable 102 is beginning to rival the number of imaging hours I put on the 80mm version of this triplet years ago. 

The ED 102 has a practical focal length and ratio for most of the deep sky targets I am interested in capturing (714mm and F/7). The 102mm diameter gives it enough aperture to give it some extra light gathering power for faint nebulae and galaxies over a smaller refractor, yet it is still very lightweight and easy to manage.

Explore Scientific ED 102 Refractor Telescope

Explore Scientific ED 102 CF Triplet Apochromatic Refractor.

I have taken countless images through the ED 102, but collecting light on deep sky targets in monochrome with a filter wheel is all new territory. 

The reason I have chosen to enlist the old ED 102 instead of the Esprit 100 or William Optics Z73 is the modifications I have made to it. I have fitted a motorized focuser and focus motor controller box to this refractor to help me fine tune my focus on the fly. 

I have photographed many incredible deep sky objects with this telescope over the past 3 years and highly recommend it to anyone looking for a high performance imaging APO for astrophotography.

Primary Imaging Camera

The Meade DSI IV is a rather new dedicated astronomy camera in the amateur astrophotography world, and there is not a lot of information about it yet. Ontario Telescope and Accessories saw an opportunity for me to share information about this camera and dive into monochrome LRGB imaging.

When I learned that the Meade DSI IV mono houses the same sensor as the ASI 1600MM, I immediately agreed to this arrangement. The Meade DSI IV mono marks as a return to the dedicated astronomy camera market by Meade, and I have high hopes for this 4/3″ format 16 Megapixel CMOS sensor.

dedicated astronomy camera

Meade Deep Sky Imager IV Mono CMOS Camera.

The thermo-electric cooler will ensure that my images are virtually noise free when compared to the images I capture on a DSLR. This camera requires an external AC power adapter to run the cooling system, and connects to my PC using a USB 3.0 cable.

I have installed all of the necessary software to run this camera using APT on my imaging laptop, and have tested everything out to make sure the images are recorded properly. I will not be using the included SkyCapture camera control software that was bundled with the camera.

Reducer/Flattener

I have always used a field flattener and reducer with the ES ED102 Triplet to maintain a flat imaging field of stars in my images. The Starfield 0.8X reducer/flattener is a perfect match for this telescope as it was designed for imaging refractors of F/5.5 and above. 

This flattener requires 55mm of back focus, which I have achieved between the camera sensor on the Meade DSI IV and back of the flattener. The required distance was accomplished by using a t-mount adapter ring to thread the camera to the Xagyl filter wheel.

Threaded to the reducer/flattener, is an Optolong L-Pro light pollution filter. This 2-inch filter sits in front of the LRGB filter set residing inside of the electronic filter wheel (EFW). So, each colored filter in the EFW (and the luminance filter), will benefit from a a subtle reduction in the amount of artificial light pollution collected when imaging in the backyard.

This is a bit of an experiment, so I plan on imaging without this filter in the future to compare results.

Guide Scope

The autoguiding telescope is a Starfield 50mm guide scope. This miniature refractor telescope has a focal length of 190mm, and serves as a lightweight solution for autoguiding. I have used this guide scope on a few rigs now, and I enjoy the precision of the helical micro-focuser.

I’ve mounted the guide scope to the cradle ring handle of the ED 102, as there is a convenient slot to mount accessories using  1/4″ screws. This is better position than the default finder scope bracket that I have used in the past. The autoguiding combo now sits directly center over the primary imaging scope.

This mounting position also allows me to use a finder scope with the ED 102 and autoguiding combo attached, which is nice to have for my 3-star alignment procedure. Both the guide scope and finder scope add very little extra weight to this setup.

astrophotography telescope

Starfield 50mm Guide Scope Package with Altair GPCAM2.

Guide Camera

The camera I am using on this setup is my well used Altair Astro GPCAM2 Mono. This camera is sensitive enough to provide accurate autoguiding results using the PHD2 Guiding software, and has proven to be a dependable little camera over the past 2 years. 

Its low profile takes up very little space on the telescope and is virtually weightless. This autoguiding combo is a painless way to add some seriously powerful tracking abilities of your existing telescope mount without adding a heavy telescope or unneeded complexity to your setup.

The camera connects to to my USB hub with a USB A Male to B Male cable to display the live loop images on my PC, while the ST-4 cable communicates subtle commands to the EQ6-R for improved tacking accuracy via PHD. 

autoguiding

The Altair GPCAM2 Mono Guide Camera.

Filter Wheel

This a new experience for me, and I am still getting used to seeing a big black plate in front of the camera. This is a Xagyl 5-position filter wheel with 48mm slots certainly requires some space, but this Xagyl model is only 0.7″ thick. 

I’ve moved the imaging payload around with everything attached and balanced, and it appears as though I won’t have to worry about the filter wheel crashing into anything. I will certainly keep an eye on things, though.

With the included adapter from Xagyl, the filter wheel added an additional 19mm of back focus which I needed to account for when fastening the camera and flattener.

The filter wheel connects to my USB hub with a mini-USB cable, and thankfully does not require another power source and additional cord to my setup. 

electronic filter wheel

Xagyl 5-Position x 2″ Electronic Filter Wheel.

Camera Filters

The team at Optolong has provided me with a complete set of Optolong LRGB filters to use in conjunction with this monochrome camera. This is my first foray into the world of LRGB imaging with a monochrome camera, as I have never owned a filter wheel to automate the process.

These filters are the 2-inch (48mm) round mounted versions that I have carefully threaded into the Xagyl 5-position filter wheel. I have tested the selection of each filter using APT and everything appears to be working flawlessly thus far. 

The images I take through the Optolong filters will showcase not only the potential of the Meade DSI IV mono, but the LRGB filter set as well. Unfortunately, I have nothing to compare them too, but I will produce a full-color deep sky image with this system so you can make an informed decision for yourself.

Optolong LRGB filter set

Motorized Focuser and Controller

I installed a Pegasus Astro Motorized Focuser on my telescope in late 2017. Since then I have enjoyed the added functionality of my ED 102, which comes in really handy when monitoring my gear outside remotely. I used to have to run outside to make a small tweak to my focus, which would often result in a lengthy back and forth process.

Now, I can make fine adjustments to the focus on the fly using a combination of Team Viewer for remote access of my imaging laptop, and the focus control panel in APT. As the temperature changes throughout the night, I often need to tweak my original focus position from the start of my imaging session. 

Motorized focuser

Pegasus Astro Stepper Motor Kit and Dual Focus Motor Controller.

I simply observe any changes to the star sharpness and quality over the last few images, and make any slight adjustments as needed in between frames using the Pegasus Dual Motor Focus Controller (DMFC). APT provides useful HFD and FWHM metrics to measure the focus quality of your stars.

I have not experienced the autofocus feature in APT yet, but plan to investigate this further this year. 

Accessories

My favorite astrophotography accessory of this setup has to be the Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box. If you remember my video from last year, this little blue box allows me to better organize and balance my deep sky imaging rig by connecting almost everything on top of the telescope. 

It powers my primary imaging camera, DFMC, and 2 dew heater straps. This not only cuts down on the number of cables running from my power bar and computer to the telescope, but also allows me to control the output of each port remotely using dedicated software from my PC.

Pocket Power Box

The Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box.

I’ve also mounted an Anker USB 3.0 7-Port hub to the eyepiece tray spreader underneath the EQ6-R mount head. This gives me all of the USB ports I need for my astrophotography cameras and accessories.

I no longer recommend using this USB Hub. It has given me some trouble lately, potentially due to the cold weather. I have since upgraded to a StarTech 7-port USB Hub.

What  I have plugged into the StarTech 7-Port USB Hub:

  1. Meade DSI IV Mono Imaging Camera
  2. Altair GPCAM2 Guide Camera
  3. Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box
  4. Xagyl 5-Position Filter Wheel
  5. QHY PoleMaster Electronic Polar Scope

With all of the cables carefully run down from the telescope into the 7-Port hub underneath, I only need to connect a single USB 3.0 cable to my imaging laptop. I ordered a nice 9-foot A-Male to B Male USB 3.0 cable for this connection to give me some flexibility when setting up. 

The computer I use for deep sky imaging is a portable laptop I purchased on Amazon last summer. This computer has all of the necessary software for astrophotography image acquisition installed such as APT, PHD2 Guiding, and the Pegasus Astro software for the Pocket Power Box (PPB), and DMFC.  

To combat moisture on the objective lens of my primary imaging telescope and guide scope, I use Kendrick dew heater bands that are powered by the PPB.

The Bottom Line

Cable management was a top priority of mine, as the goal is to be able to control this mount remotely from inside the house when it gets too cold to be out all night. I’ve used over 25 Velcro ties to bundle up the cables as neatly as possible to avoid potential cables snags. Some soft tubing to completely conceal this cables might look best, but I’ll monitor how things operate like this first.

The entire imaging payload is balanced perfectly on top of the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R in both axis. I’ve pointed the telescope in almost every possible position, and nothing catches or strikes the tripod. I still do not feel comfortable slewing to a new target remotely (nor do I have the PC connection set up yet), so for now that operation will only take place when I am sitting next to the rig. 

The most important aspect of this rig are the automation and portability qualities. What I mean by that is, I can quickly carry this rig out of the garage to set up and image on a night with a limited amount of clear sky time. Without the counterweights attached, I am able to lift the entire load up and place it in the yard without having to re-assemble it. 

If the telescope were larger and heavier, I wouldn’t be able to do this safely without sacrificing my back or the chance of dropping something. 

Once I set up the tripod and polar align the mount, I can perform a quick 2-star alignment and slew to my target. Once I am locked on and framed properly, I’ll head inside the house to monitor the imaging session using Team Viewer to access my laptop outside.

From here, I can make slight adjustments to focus and take images through each LRGB filter. I expect I’ll need a window of at least 3 clear hours to produce a color deep image using this system.

Now, if I could just decide on a target…

What’s Next?

You may have noticed the absence of some existing new astrophotography gear I have talked about over the past couple of months. Namely the ZWO ASIair WiFi camera control unit and the Celestron CGX-L telescope mount. 

Both of these products will be used in the near future as the weather improves and I can dedicate longer periods of time under the night sky. The plan is to use the ASIair on the Celestron CGX-L, with the new Celestron 8″ RASA attached.

I’ve got a few other new products to share as well, so I hope you stick around to see them over the coming months. Until next time, clear skies.

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Why I’m Switching to a Mono Astrophotography Camera

|Camera|23 Comments

A mono astrophotography camera gives backyard imagers in the city the opportunity to collect dynamic narrowband images from home.  Although LRGB image acquisition using a filter wheel requires some extra setup time early on, the flexibility of this configuration is appealing.

Up to this point, I have not experienced the joys of shooting through a filter wheel. But I have experienced the extraordinary power of a monochrome sensor through narrowband filters. My latest experiences in the backyard have me wondering if I should have switched to a mono astrophotography camera a long time ago…

I’ve Seen the Light, and its in Monochrome

Those of you who shoot with a one-shot-color astrophotography camera (such as DSLR) as I did for many years may be hesitant to switch to a camera that spits out black and white images. The satisfaction of a colorful nebula appearing on the back of your camera display screen after a 120-second exposure is why we got into this hobby in the first place.

Make no mistake, a color DSLR camera remains the best options for beginners looking to get started in deep sky. I’ve spent the past 7 years doing so, and nothing will ever match the enjoyment of capturing objects in space from a dark sky site with a camera and telescope.

photography through a telescope

Yet experienced backyard astrophotographers insist that monochrome is the only way to go if you want to get serious about your deep sky imaging. I took a lot of flak last year when I decided to upgrade from a DSLR to a One-shot-color Altair Hypercam 183C, particularly when shooting through narrowband filters.

The results of my color camera + narrowband experiments were promising, but I knew those 12nm filters were better suited for a mono sensor.

In this post, I’ll tell you why I’ll be shooting with a mono astrophotography camera from this point forward. But first, have a look at the Altair Hypercam 183M in action on the Cone Nebula.

Why do serious amateurs recommend a mono camera over color?

A monochrome astrophotography camera can collect more signal (light) than a color camera can. (3 times as much, to be exact). The Bayer filter array found in a color camera reduces the amount of overall light recorded on your astrophotography subject.

By design, a camera sensor with a color filter array requires you to take longer exposures to record the same level of signal as a mono camera would. By automatically collecting light through your telescope into separate RGB channels as the light is collected, you are sacrificing the full potential of the light you work so hard to collect.

Bayer filter

The Bayer filter found on color CMOS camera sensors. Wikipedia

In this article from PhotographingSpace.com, Dillon O’Donnell weighs the pros and cons of using a mono camera for astrophotography over color. In the end, it comes down to a trade-off between convenience and quality.

A color camera will get you to the finish line faster but will hold you back in terms of image quality at a certain point. You may photograph objects through your telescope for years before you reach a point where you feel like your progress has plateaued.

The bottom line is, a color camera is a jack of all trades, master of none.

mono vs. color camera

Left: The Cone Nebula using a monochrome camera and narrowband filters. Right: The Trifid Nebula using a modified Canon DSLR with an LPS filter.

Making the switch the switch to mono

Let’s get one thing straight, my color astrophotography cameras (DSLR’s) will not collect dust on the shelf as I begin to focus on capturing images in monochrome. Creating beautiful full-color images of space will always be my primary goal.

For most projects, I simply don’t have the time (clear skies) to collect all of my data using a monochrome camera with the necessary filters. In a nutshell, I’ll capture color images around the new moon, and narrowband mono images the rest of the time.

I’ll never stop shooting in color with a DSLR, but new monochrome data will give my existing color images a real boost.

Color astrophotography camera

Won’t it take three times longer to produce an image?

The added time involved with a mono astrophotography camera has been labeled a “myth” by some of the CCD manufacturers.  Until I invest in a filter wheel and run through the entire process for myself, I can only speculate that this simply can’t be true.

It’s possible that the overall image acquisition process time could be shortened due to the fact that more light is collected in each sub. Manually swapping out filters for each channel would tip the scales the other direction, but an automated setup including a filter wheel would speed this up.

camera though telescope

I thought a cooled CCD was the only way to go?

Everybody knows that a cooled CCD camera is the best choice for serious deep sky astrophotography, what’s all this about CMOS sensors (that DSLRs use)?

Advances in CMOS technology have the latest astrophotography cameras that use CMOS sensors performing nearly as well as the coveted CCD. If you’ve been calling a non-DSLR dedicated astronomy camera a CCD, you’re not alone. Many software applications such as Astro Photography Tool label these CMOS astronomy cameras as a “CCD” to distinguish them from a DSLR camera.

CCD cameras vary in price by a wide margin, from the tiny Orion StarShoot G3 Deep Space Camera to “the ultimate in astronomical imaging”, the SBIG STX-16803.

For a wealth of information about CCD cameras, have a look at this video from Atik Cameras.  Stephen Chambers, of course, references cameras from the Atik line, but much of the information he shares applies to all astronomy cameras.

A monochrome CMOS image sensor

After several years of photographing deep sky targets in color through a Bayer filter,  I am now realizing the difference a camera with an improved quantum efficiency makes.

As you may have guessed, my heart once belonged to one-shot-color DSLR astrophotography. But, I am quickly realizing how a monochrome astronomy camera can give backyard imagers a tremendous advantage. It’s hard to imagine shooting with a color camera with a narrowband filter now that I have seen how much more detail can be acquired in mono.

Benefits of a monochrome camera:

  • minimize effects of light pollution (nb)
  • excels at capturing emission nebulae
  • photograph fainter objects
  • image during the full moon (nb)
  • ability to capture a wider range of objects

Have a look at this infographic shared by Atik Cameras.

Altair Hypercam 183M

The Altair Hypercam 183M

astrophotography cameraToday, I have in my hands a new Altair Hypercam 183M astronomy camera. This camera uses a monochrome Sony IMX183 sensor that can also be found inside cameras from ZWO and QHY.

The Altair Hypercam 183M camera lacks thermo-electric cooling, which is a big reason it is more affordable than its cooled mono competitors.

Even without a TEC system, the Hypercom sensor remains remarkably cool during a long exposure imaging session thanks to the open body design and fan cooling.

I put the Hypercam internal fan design to the test last summer on the 183C, and I was impressed at the difference it made. On the hottest summer nights, the DSLR remained on the shelf while the Hypercam pressed on.

Altair Hypercam 183M Specs:

  • 20MP Sony IMX183 BSI CMOS Sensor
  • Fan Cooling with temp. sensor
  • 1″ CMOS Sensor (5440 x 3648 active pixels)
  • Built-in amp glow reduction
  • high dynamic range (12 bit ADC to 16-bit output)

The Altair Hypercam 183 requires the appropriate drivers to operate.  You can download them from cameras.altairastro.com.

Telescope in the backyard

Plans for deep sky imaging in monochrome

I once believed that moving to a darker location was the only way I would be able to photograph faint and challenging targets. When you couple narrowband filters with a highly sensitive mono CMOS sensor, you’ve got what it takes to break through even the worst city light pollution.

For now, I’ll focus on capturing luminance data or isolated narrowband gas details with the 183M. I can apply this new data to existing deep sky color photos for some added punch. Moving forward, adding a filter wheel to the mix will allow me to create completely new versions of my favorite objects.

Adding mono details to a color image

I’ve added new mono details using the 183M to my image of the Whirlpool Galaxy from 2014 in RGB

I’ll be sure to create a new Photoshop tutorial in the future that includes the process of adding a luminance layer to existing color images. The added “light” can make a dramatic impact on your images and provide some much-needed contrast and clarity to your photos. It is especially effective on nebulae with plenty of hydrogen gas.

Early deep sky image results

The Cone Nebula is a tough shot to get from a red/white zone. My previous attempt using a color camera and a telescope (and hindsight) that wasn’t a good fit for an object this size, did not go so well. The chip size of the 183M is a good match to the focal length of my ED102 refractor telescope. (714mm @ F/6)

This time, however, my Explore Scientific ED102 was called into action, with the Altair Hypercam 183M attached. Also, I decided to sacrifice instant color gratification for more details. The image was shot the day after the full moon, and it was shining uncomfortably close to my target during this session.

The Cone Nebula in Mono

The Cone Nebula and Fox Fur Nebula using the Altair Hypercam 183M

Image details:

24 x 5 minutes (2 Hours Total)
Gain: 40%
Black Level: 100

Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102
Camera: Altair Hypercam 183M V2
Filter: STC Optical Duo-Narrowband Filter
Guide Scope: William Optics Z72 Doublet
Guide Camera: Altair GPCAM2 AR0130 Mono
Mount: iOptron CEM60

Stacked in DeepSkyStacker

Image Processing in Adobe Photoshop.

For the image above, I used an STC Optical duo-narrowband filter that isolates both Ha and OIII and blocks out almost all other wavelengths of light. It’s designed to ignore city light pollution, while enhancing the wavelengths of Ha and OIII. Although this 48mm filter worked brilliantly with the Mono camera on the Cone Nebula, I need to test this filter with my DSLR.

STC Optical duo-narrowband filter

The Transmission Rate spectrum graph of the STC Optical Astro Duo-Narrowband filter

Plans for the Future

The Cone Nebula was my last imaging session with the winter targets, as objects on there way out to the West are not available in my backyard window.

Galaxy season is approaching, and with it, come numerous new targets for deep sky astrophotography. This time around, I’ll shoot with a longer focal length to pull the often tiny subjects into view. The telescope I’ll be using is an iOptron Photron RC6. This will be a brief departure from my refractors as we head into spring. The timing couldn’t be better.

Until next time, clear skies.

Update: In early 2019 I added a cooled CMOS monochrome astronomy camera to my set up, the Meade DSI IV

Resources:

How to Choose a CCD Camera

This is a great resource from Diffraction Limited that provides a better understanding the importance of focal length, light sensitivity and resolution in an astronomy camera. This is the company responsible for the iconic SBIG line up of CCD Cameras.

ZWO ASI Website

ZWO offers a wide range of high sensitivity CMOS astronomy cameras.  To date, I have enjoyed the ASI071MC-Cool (Color) and the ASI294MC-Pro (Color). The ASI 1600MM-C is currently one of the most impressive monochrome astrophotography cameras being used by backyard astrophotographers around the world.

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HaRGB Astrophotography

|HaRGB|6 Comments

Right now is the absolute best time of the year for backyard astrophotography.  The days are warm and the nights are clear, summer star gazing is here!  The core of our Milky Way galaxy has returned to our night sky here in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it comes many celestial delights such as the colorful nebulae located in and around the constellation Sagittarius.  For me, Summer astrophotography means pointing my telescope right where the action is – in the core of the Milky Way, soaking in as much exposure time as possible.  These days do not last long!  We have but a brief window to capture glorious deep-sky objects such as the Lagoon Nebula, Trifid Nebula, Swan Nebula, and Eagle Nebula.  All four of these glorious Messier Objects are worthy of several sleepless nights in the backyard.

Camping and Star Gazing

The warmer weather also means astronomy camping, to seek out darker skies and spend all night under the stars.  Spending time with family and friends around the campfire with my telescope collecting photons in the background is my idea of a good time!  My camping gear would not be complete without all of my astrophotography equipment coming along with me.  This includes everything from my tracking mount to my laptop!  I always book my camping trips on or around the new moon phase, and with a campsite that has a clear view to the South.  Luckily for me, there are many fantastic campgrounds located on the North shore of Lake Erie, which creates a vast dark area directly south of our location.  I recently spent a night at Selkirk Provincial Park for some astronomy camping on a warm, clear night in early June.

 

Camping and Star Gazing

The Big Dipper from our Campsite

 

Photography with the New APO

I am excited to announce that I am the proud new owner of an Explore Scientific ED102 CF astrophotography telescope.  This is a portable, light weight triplet apochromatic refractor – built for deep-sky imaging.  The increase in aperture is a welcome change from my now departed ED80 telescope I enjoyed for the past 5 years.  I have now had this refractor out a few times, and could not be more pleased with it.  I am thrilled with the fact that I can produce images with deeper, and more detailed results due to the increased size.  Going from 80mm to 102mm may not seem like a large increase, but when it comes to astrophotography, 22mm makes a BIG difference!

 

Explore Scientific ED102 CF

My new Explore Scientific ED102 CF Telescope

 

My first imaging session with the new Explore Scientific 102mm CF was on June 8th.  My deep-sky target of choice was the beautiful Eagle Nebula, an emission nebula in  the constellation Serpens.  I managed to capture just over 2 hours on this object from the backyard.  It was a weeknight, and I got about 2 hours of sleep before work the next morning.  WORTH IT!  I made a video about the dedication to this hobby, a small pep-talk if you will.  Despite the videos mixed reviews, I am still proud of this wacky, short little astrophotography video.

Speaking of YouTube, my channel has over 500 subscribers!  I cannot believe the response generated from my astrophotography videos.  It turns out that I am not the only one obsessed with photographing stars in the night sky.  If you haven’t subscribed yet, please do!  I can promise you many more useful astrophotography tutorials, vlogs, and equipment reviews in the future!

Astronomik 12nm Ha Filter

To add to the excitement, I have also added a new Astronomik 12nm Ha filter to my growing list of astrophotography equipment.  This is my first time diving into narrowband imaging, something I’ve been interested in for years.  This clip-in filter blocks out almost all wavelengths of light and only allows the light produced from emission nebulae and starlight to pass through.  What makes this feature so powerful t astrophotographers is the fact that it allows to image under heavy moonlight and light-pollution.  For a backyard astrophotographer such as myself, it is an absolute game-changer.  This means I can image twice as often, and produce more vivid and detailed deep-sky photos by adding Ha (Hydrogen Alpha) data to my existing RGB images.

 

 

Astronomik Ha Filter

Filter Purchased (For use with my Canon DSLR)
Clip-Filter (EOS) with ASTRONOMIK H-Alpha-CCD 12nm

Bought online from OPT Telescopes and shipped to Canada

 

HaRGB Astrophotography

Combining the RGB data with Ha for a stronger image

HaRGB Astrophotography

M16 – The Eagle Nebula in HaRGB

Anyways – about the Eagle Nebula.  I noticed the increased detail in M16 using the new telescope right away.  The super-sharp, high contrast images I have come to expect using a triplet apo were also evident right away.  I captured my RGB data of the Eagle Nebula on June 8th (About 2 hours), and returned to the subject on June 14th to photograph it using the Astronomik Ha Filter.  Because I use the filter ring adapter for my IDAS LPS filter on my Canon Xsi, the Astronomik 12nm Ha clip-in filter would not fit into the camera without the stock interior.  To make life easier – I captured the Ha data by clipping the Astronomik filter into my Canon 7D body.  This is the first time I have used the Canon 7D for deep-sky astrophotography.  I must say that I was impressed with the increased image resolution.  This makes me want to upgrade my aging 450D.  It never ends!  Here is my image of the Eagle Nebula combining the RGB data with the Ha:

 

Eagle Nebula in Ha + RGB

M16 – The Eagle Nebula in HaRGB

Photo Details

RGB:

Total Exposure: 2 Hours, 9 Minutes (43 frames) 
Exposure Length: 3 Minutes
ISO: 1600
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Camera: Canon Rebel Xsi (modified)
Filter: IDAS Lps 

 

Ha:

Total Exposure: 1 Hours, 40 Minutes (20 frames) 
Exposure Length: 5 Minutes
ISO: 1600
Telescope: Explore Scientific ED102 CF
Camera: Canon EOS 7D
Filter: Astronomik 12nm Ha

 

Using H-Alpha as a Luminance Channel

Creating a HaRGB image in Photoshop

I still have a lot to learn about processing HaRGB images using a DSLR.  However, my early results are very promising!  I really love the way the H-Alpha data brings out the nebulosity without bloating the surrounding stars.  The common processing method of combining the Hydrogen Alpha data is to add it to your existing RGB data as a luminosity layer in Adobe Photoshop.  This is the method I have chosen to use, although I am still learning how to best accomplish this task.  You can read a simple tutorial on the process from Starizona.com.

 

Ha luminance layer

The H-Alpha (Ha) Layer of my image

Dark Sky Camping Trip

Camping Trip with Telescope

Our campsite at Selkirk PP

I wanted to take advantage of the dark skies at Selkirk Provincial park by imaging the Swan nebula from my campsite.  I had everything all ready to go including a perfect polar alignment, and my autoguiding system with PHD running smoothly.  The only problem – MY BATTERY DIED!  I captured one amazing 5 minute frame on the Swan Nebula before my battery pack’s low-power alarm sounded off.  What a heart breaker.  Normally this battery is enough to power my astrophotography equipment all night long, but I didn’t charge it long enough before we left.  Lesson learned!

To make the most of a bad situation, I decided to turn my attention to some wide-filed landscape astrophotography using my Canon 70D and tripod.  The moon finally set, and the sky was incredibly dark after midnight.  The milky way could easily be seen with the naked eye as it stretched across the sky.  This is something everyone should witness at some point in there life.  There is something about it that makes me feel connected with our universe.

 

Camping Milky Way

The Milky Way from Selkirk Provincial Park

 

As always, thank you for your interest my website, and this incredible hobby.  I’ll do my best to answer your questions so we can continue our journey together.  Please follow my Facebook Page for the most up-to-date astrophotography information.  It’s a great way to connect with me and other backyard astrophotographers chasing the same feeling.

AstroBackyard is on Facebook

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