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QHY PoleMaster Review

|Tutorials|13 Comments

The QHY PoleMaster electronic polar scope was designed to make your polar alignment routine easier, and more precise. No matter which camera tracker or telescope mount you’re using, when it comes to astrophotography, accurate polar alignment is critical.

If you have ever struggled to polar align your telescope mount with the north or south celestial pole, the QHY PoleMaster may just be your new best friend. With a slew of recent technical headaches and an unforgiving winter, my appreciation for devices that make my life easier has grown.

The QHY PoleMaster delivered exceptional results for me on my first night out with it. The dedicated polar alignment software was easy to use, and the camera produced a crystal clear image of the star field surrounding the north celestial pole.

I experienced that cliche moment I expect all backyard astrophotographers had with this device their first night where I thought, “I should have been using one of these a long time ago”. It’s true.

polemaster polar alignment

The PoleMaster I am using is for my Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro EQ mount, and I have fastened it to the mount using the dedicated QHY adapter for this model.

QHY PoleMaster Review

In this post, I’ll review the QHY PoleMaster from the perspective of an experienced amateur backyard astrophotographer who’s spent a lot of time manually polar aligning mounts using polar finder scope.

When others would mention the QHY PoleMaster to me, I would say that I just don’t need one. I felt comfortable manually polar aligning my telescope mounts and camera trackers, from the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, to the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro.

deep sky astrophotography equipment

My deep sky astrophotography setup with a PoleMaster fastened to the polar axis of the telescope mount.

I use a mobile app (Polar Finder) that gives me a readout of the current position of the north celestial pole, and fine tune the altitude and azimuth controls of my mount to line the axis up as best as possible. On the Celestron CGX-L, I have the All-Star Polar Alignment feature to help me out.

So why do I need a QHY PoleMaster to aid me in this process? Because sometimes “as best as possible” just isn’t good enough. Oh, and kneeling on the cold pavement or wet grass to get behind that polar scope kinda sucks too.

What about confirming the position of Polaris in the illuminated reticle after I’ve started imaging? Depending on the angle my telescope is pointed (on the EQ6-R), this simply isn’t an option. In fact, there is a long list of benefits to using the QHY PoleMaster over a manual alignment routine that I seemed to have ignored up until now.

Polar Alignment speed, accuracy and experience improvements with the QHY PoleMaster:

  • I can polar align faster, at dusk

My old method of polar alignment was fast, this one is faster. I no longer need to wait until I can see Polaris with my naked eye to get started.

  • I don’t have to get on the ground

I like to leave my telescope mount tripod legs at their minimum height for maximum stability. However, this makes getting underneath the polar scope tricky and somewhat painful (I feel old).

  • Improved polar alignment accuracy

A high precision camera can achieve a higher level of polar alignment accuracy than “my best try”. The imaging camera in the PoleMaster has a resolution of 30 arc seconds.

  • I can monitor and confirm my polar alignment at any time

Any slight amount of drift due to bumping the mount, sinking into the lawn or other factors I had no way of monitoring are now easy to identify and fix.

  • No more 3-star alignment routines

electronic polar scope

Why didn’t someone tell me about this feature? The spot-on accuracy of the PoleMaster means that only a 1-star alignment routine is needed for your telescope mount to learn the sky.

The pointing accuracy of your telescope mount will vary depending on the focal length of the telescope you are using for astrophotography.

Eliminating any cone error in your telescope mount will improve your pointing accuracy even further. The Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro has an option to adjust this.

QHY PoleMaster EQ Mount Polar Alignment Camera Specifications:

  • Field of View: 11 degrees by 8 degrees
  • Interface: Mini USB 2.0
  • Resolution: Approximately 30 Arc seconds
  • Weight: 115 g (0.25 lb)

What’s included in the box

This PoleMaster was sent to me from High Point Scientific for review. The team at High Point made sure to include the necessary adapter for my EQ telescope mount. Here is a look at everything that comes with the PoleMaster:

  • PoleMaster camera body
  • Lens cap with a lanyard
  • Mini USB 2.0 cable
  • Mount adaptor
  • Mount adaptor cap
  • M4 hardware for attaching the adaptor
  • Allen key for lens focus adjustment

what's included

When ordering your PoleMaster, make sure to specify which mount adapter you need for your specific telescope mount.

View list of available mount adapters

Fastening the PoleMaster to your telescope mount

The PoleMaster I am using is for my Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro EQ mount, and I have fastened it to the mount using the dedicated QHY adapter for this model. The hardware was easy to install, and the materials used and overall finish of this device is attractive.

The adapter for my Sky-Watcher EQ6-R came with a tiny Allen key to adjust tension, so I could securely lock the PoleMaster into the front of the polar axis scope of the mount. The adapter I am using for the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R also works with CGEM style mounts from Celestron.

PoleMaster adapter for Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro

The QHY PoleMaster adapter for the Sky-Watcher EQ6-R

There are two parts to the mount adapter for the PoleMaster, the camera base disc that attaches to the camera body, and the camera mount ring that you need to secure to the mount. You secure the camera base disc to the mounting ring using a thumb screw.

For the EQ6-R mount adapter I used, there were three tiny grub screws to tighten using the supplied Allen key to lock the adapter into place.

Installing QHY PoleMaster on mount

Installing the QHY PoleMaster and adapter on my Sky-Watcher EQ6-R Pro Mount.

The device connects to my PC via a Mini USB 2.0 cable, with miniature locking screws to avoid yanking the cable out by accident. I wish more of my device connectors had this. The manual instructs you to position the USB port of the PoleMaster to the left hand side when looking at the device head on.

I ran the mini USB 2.0 cable from the PoleMaster into my recently upgraded powered USB hub, which consolidates the various astrophotography devices I have running to a single USB cable into my laptop.

The adapter allows you to take the PoleMaster off of the mount while not in use or in storage, but I think I’ll leave it right where it is. The tiny camera adds no weight to my rig and maintains a low profile.

I’ll just have to make sure I don’t bang anything against the device by accident when setting up. The included lens cap should stay on the PoleMaster when not in use to protect the lens.

QHY PoleMaster Adapter

Software and Downloads

All of the software and drivers needed to run the PoleMaster device were found on the QHY website. The company has recently updated their site, which lead me on a bit of a wild goose chase.

Rather then using the URL printed on the green card that came with the camera, I simply “Googled “QHY PoleMaster Driver” to find the appropriate section of the QHY website.

Here, I downloaded the latest stable driver for the PoleMaster, along with the dedicated software needed to communicate with the camera and control parameters such as gain and exposure length.

With the 2 downloads unpacked and installed, I ran the PoleMaster software on my field laptop with the camera connected. The QHY PoleMaster manual (link below) was to-the-point and helpful through this process, and instructed me to click the “connect” button.

QHY PoleMaster Manual

QHYCCD PoleMaster Manual

I heard the reassuring “new device connected” chime on my Windows 10 OS after plugging in the PoleMaster, so I new the camera was successfully recognized by my PC.

Tip:

If your PC has trouble recognizing astrophotography accessories and devices, I recommend unplugging the device and reconnecting to a new USB port. Monitor the Windows device manager to troubleshoot any connection issues.

After hitting the “connect” button, the PoleMaster delivered a live-view loop of the stars in the northern sky. The mount was already roughly polar aligned to my latitude at 43 degrees north, and pointed in the general direction of Polaris in my backyard.

The PoleMaster camera lens has an 11 x 6 degree of field of view. This means that the pole star should be visible if the mount has been roughly polar aligned.

Even though it was not completely dark out yet, I could see a formation of stars in the display screen right off the bat. After zooming out to 75% view, the north star, Polaris was obvious.

Us northern hemisphere folk have the luxury of having a bright pole star. In the southern hemisphere, the PoleMaster Uses Sigma Octans as a reference, which is a bit trickier to identify.

Using the PoleMaster Software

PoleMaster software

The PoleMaster software user interface.

The first thing you’ll want to do is adjust the gain and exposure settings so that it is easy to identify the pole star and a number of adjacent stars in the field.

The software walks you through a simple process of identifying and confirming the pole star. The process involves matching an overlay of star positions with your current view of Polaris and surrounding stars.

The rotate tool on the left hand sidebar lets you rotate the star pattern overlay using your mouse or trackpad to line up with your current live view of the north star.

Then, you are asked to rotate the RA axis of your telescope mount to determine the rotation of the mechanical axis. By rotating your mounts right ascension axis by 15 degrees or more, the software can confirm this value.

AstroBackyard Polemaster Review

Fine tuning my the polar alignment accuracy of my telescope mount using the QHY PoleMaster.

I made the mistake of releasing the RA clutch of the mount to perform this step, when the manual clearly states that this must done using the hand controller or mount control software such as EQMOD.

The reason for this specification is that by releasing the RA clutch, you shift the rotational center of the mount. Instead, keep the RA clutch locked, and perform this rotation by pressing the east button on the keypad.

Next the on-screen prompts tell you to confirm the center of rotation. Eventually, you will get to a point where the application displays a small green circle. This is exactly where the pole star needs to be. At this point, the ultra-fine adjustments you make to your polar alignment are far beyond what’s possible with the naked eye.

I wonder how far off the north celestial pole I was in the past?

North celestial pole

Aligning the polar axis of my telescope mount with the true north celestial pole using the PoleMaster.

Atmospheric Refraction

The PoleMaster has an option to enable a feature called atmospheric refraction to further improve your polar alignment accuracy. This feature asks you to input your coordinates, temperature, and pressure. For atmospheric refraction to work correctly, the USB connector on the PoleMaster must be facing east. 

Owners of the PoleMaster have recommended to start the polar alignment routine with your telescope to the west instead of the home position. 2 moves or more than 30 degrees can be difficult from the home position, so if the telescope starts in the west it is not an issue.

If you do not remove the PoleMaster from your telescope mount between astrophotography sessions, you can reuse the centering procedure from your previous polar alignment. However, if you are using the atmospheric refraction feature, you’ll need to remember to adjust the temperature and pressure settings for that night.

Final Thoughts

There is a reason so many amateur astrophotography enthusiasts own a QHY PoleMaster. Whether you want to improve your polar alignment accuracy, save time, or ditch those 2nd and 3rd alignment stars when setting up – the PoleMaster can make your time under the stars more efficient.

The pressure and urgency to capture images increases when you have a limited window of clear sky time. When even a single aspect of your astrophotography setup is off, you can quickly squander your night sky bounty for the night.

astrophotography telescope

Devices like the QHY PoleMaster help to optimize your imaging experience and allow you to focus on the photography side of things, like collecting images. The peace of mind knowing that your telescope mount is optimized for the apparent rotation of the night sky is one aspect of the hobby every one of us can appreciate.

At under $300 USD for the QHY PoleMaster Electronic Polar Scope is an obvious upgrade to any amateur setup, whether you think you need one or not. Is it possible to get your rig accurately polar aligned without the PoleMaster? Sure.

But in a hobby where little things make the difference between a good image, and a great one – I like to take every advantage I can get.

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ZWO ASI294MC Pro Review (Color Astrophotography Camera)

|Camera|23 Comments

The ZWO ASI294 MC Pro is a remarkably capable one-shot-color CMOS camera for deep sky astrophotography. Whether you use it for broadband true-color images on a moonless night or ultra-long-exposure images using your favorite narrowband filter – this camera can produce insanely beautiful images.

This is easily one of the best color cameras I have ever used for astrophotography, and my go-to choice for a night of deep sky imaging. Over the past 6 months, I have used this camera extensively through a number of telescopes in the backyard and beyond.

Here is a taste of what the ASI294MC Pro can do:

M20 - The Trifid Nebula

The Trifid Nebula using a Luminance Filter with the ASI294 MC Pro

This photo of the Trifid Nebula was captured using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro with an Astromania Luminance filter (IR Cut) in front of the sensor. The photo was captured under the dark skies of the Cherry Springs Star Party in 2018.

This incredible camera was loaned to me for review by Stephen Mallia of Ontario Telescope and Accessories. You can purchase the ASI294 MC Pro online from his website.

ASI294MC Pro Astrophotography Camera Review


I can safely say that I now know exactly what the ASI294MC Pro is capable of, and some recommended settings that you can use for a successful image. I’ve used this camera for both full-color images with light pollution filters, an IR cut filter and narrowband filters that separate certain wavelengths of light such as Ha and OIII.

This OSC (One-shot-color) camera performs exceptionally well in both situations. The idea of capturing narrowband images with a color camera is something that is generally advised against in the astrophotography community. This is because a color sensor will essentially record about one-quarter of the detail a mono camera would.

The cheat code, however, is to use a color camera like the ASI294 MC Pro with a duo-narrowband filter like the STC Astro Duo-Narrowband filter. This has the power to build gorgeous deep sky images like the Eagle Nebula example below in a single shot.

The Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula in Ha + OIII (STC Astro Duo-Narrowband Filter)

The photo above was captured in a Bortle Class 8 light polluted area (my backyard) using the ASI294 MC Pro. It showcases both Ha and OIII gases of this Emission Nebula (Messier 16) for some astonishingly detailed results from the city.

This dedicated astronomy camera houses a high-sensitivity type 4/3 CMOS image sensor that supports 4K output at 120 frames per second. It’s a SONY 10.7 MP sensor that produces high-resolution 4144 x 2822 pixel images at its native resolution.

I generally bin my images 2×2, so that just means that my photos are half of that size, in greater resolution. (smaller pixel size). The Bayer pattern of this color sensor is RGGB, which you’ll need to remember when selecting the camera in your image control software, and before stacking.

This camera is well suited for color EAA astronomy (Electronically-Assisted Astronomy), as the ASI294MC Pro includes a 256MB DDR3 memory buffer to help improve data transfer reliability. This is a great feature to consider if you plan on diving into this type of visual astronomy.

You can benefit from the high sensitivity sensor to view more detail in a deep sky object in a “live” looping video feed. Because I am obsessed with collecting images, the only time I experience a glimpse of this feature is when I am framing my target!

Comparing Specs Between ASI Color Cameras:

CameraSensorSensor SizeResolutionPrice
ASI183MC ProSONY IMX1831"20 MPCheck Current Price
ASI294MC ProSONY IMX2944/3"10.7 MPCheck Current Price
ASI071MC ProSONY IMX071APS-C (1.8")16 MPCheck Current Price
ASI128MC ProSONY IMX128Full Frame (35mm)24 MPCheck Current Price

All of the Pro model ASI color cameras include the DDR3 Buffer technology which results in faster data transfer speeds and reduces amp glow. Each one of these cameras requires 55mm of back focus between the image sensor and your flattener/reducer.

Making the Upgrade from a DSLR to a CCD-style camera

When I began using color CMOS cameras like the ASI294 MC Pro, I could no longer use the camera control software I did with my DSLR’s (Backyard EOS). Instead, I use an application called APT (Astro Photography Tool), which allows me to control every aspect of the camera from the cooling temperature to gain.

Upgrading from a DSLR to a CCD type astronomy camera like this is a big transition. For me, the hardest part was getting used to controlling the camera entirely with external software.

The change in image file formats (from .RAW to .FIT was also a bit of a hurdle early on. Luckily, DeepSkyStacker is well suited to stack and de-Bayer this image format into a high resolution .TIF file that you can process in Photoshop.

ZWO ASI294MC Pro Review

The two-stage TEC (Thermo-electric cooling) is perhaps the biggest difference and advantage a dedicated astronomy camera has over a DSLR. As you may know, noise is a big issue to deal with when taking long exposures at a high ISO. I’ve battled with noise for many years (and continue to do so) when processing my astrophotography images taken with my Canon T3i and 5D Mk II DSLR’s.

A cooled CMOS camera like the ASI294 MC Pro can cool its sensor down to 35 degrees below ambient. This results in images that are virtually free of thermal noise. I should mention that it’s important to understand that this means 35 degrees below the current temperature, so if it’s a hot 30-degree night, the camera will max out at -5 degrees.

APO refractor telescope

The ASI294MC Pro Camera attached to my Explore Scientific ED102 Refractor Telescope

Connections and Software

The camera is connected to my computer via a USB 3.0 cable. For the cooling feature, it also requires an external 12V power supply that does not come included with the camera. If you’re anything like me, you have accumulated a number of 12V adapter cables over the years.

To keep things organized and convenient, I now connect the power port on the ASI294MC Pro to the outlets on my Pegasus Astro Pocket Power Box. This means that the camera and telescope don’t have another power cable running to an outlet. It all rides atop the iOptron CEM60 equatorial mount.

The camera is controlled using APT, which required the appropriate drivers from the ZWO ASI website. Installing the driver is painless, and then the “ASI camera” selection will appear from the drop-down menu the next time you connect the camera to APT.

The cooling function is set using the “Cooling Aid” within Astro Photography Tool. It can take a few minutes to get the camera sensor to the temperature you want it. It’s best to get a head start on this process so you’re not waiting around when it’s time to shoot.

A One-Shot-Color Camera – Impressive Specs

I love how sensitive the SONY IMX294CJK sensor is on this camera. The dynamic range of this camera sensor is listed at 13 stops. This is even more than the legendary AS1600 camera from ZWO. This characteristic is thanks to the built-in 14bit ADC (analog-to-digital converter) unit on the 294MC Pro.

ZWO ASI294MC Pro Camera Specs:

  • Sensor: 4/3″ SONY IMX294 CMOS
  • Diagonal: 23.2mm
  • Resolution: 10.7 Mega Pixels (4144 X 2822)
  • Pixel Size: 4.63µm
  • Bayer Pattern: RGGB
  • ADC:14bit
  • DDRIII Buffer: 256MB
  • Back Focus Distance: 6.5mm
  • Cooling: Regulated Two Stage TEC

If you’re wondering what the difference is between the MC-Cool and MC-Pro cameras from ASI are, it’s the DDR3 memory buffer. For non-tech-heads (like myself) this basically means that the camera can transfer data faster and more efficiently. It also reduces amp glow because this artifact is primarily caused by slow transfer speeds.

Here is what the amp glow looks like on a single image captured with the ASI294MC Pro. The amp glow is completely removed after stacking the images with dark frames in DeepSkyStacker.

amp glow

Recommended settings for the ASI294 MC Pro

I find that the best camera settings to use with this camera are to set the gain at “unity gain” and an exposure length of 3 to 5 minutes. This, of course, depends on the deep sky target you are shooting, and the filters being used with the camera.

For example, using a narrowband filter such as a 12nm Ha, I would choose an exposure length of at least 5 minutes. I even shot some images that were as long as 10 minutes with this camera. The photo below shows the Rosette Nebula using a stack of 20 x 10 minutes exposures using the ASI294MC Pro and an Astronomik 12nm Ha filter.

NGC 2244 in Ha

Because the sensor is so sensitive, I can often find my deep sky target in a 2-3 second exposure in live loop mode. This is usually with a strong narrowband filter in front, which is quite impressive. This makes framing the target much easier because you’re able to see the shape and orientation of the DSO (almost) in real time as you adjust the telescope.

Final Thoughts

If you compare the ASI294MC Pro vs. the ASI071MC Pro, you’ll find that the price is significantly more affordable for the 294. I’ve used both of these cameras (The ASI071 camera was the older non-pro “Cool” version), and the image results are remarkably comparable.

The biggest difference between the two cameras is, of course, the sensor itself. The sensor in the AS071 is a 16MP APS-C sized chip, while the ASI294 is a Four-Thirds 10.7 MP sensor. This changes the pixel scale of your images and thus the apparent size of the objects you’ll capture through your telescope.

For APO refractors in the 700-1000mm range, the pixel scale of the ASI294 MC Pro was the absolute perfect size for some of my favorite deep sky targets like the Eagle Nebula and Pelican Nebula.  I used a Starfield 0.8X reducer/flattener with this camera and the various refractor telescopes I used when imaging deep sky objects.

Deep sky astrophotography telescope

If you’re looking to upgrade your DSLR or current color astronomy camera to the realm of “cooled” CMOS sensors – my results with the ASI294 MC Pro should help you make a more informed decision. I highly recommend the ASI294 MC Pro camera if you are in the market for a color astrophotography camera with some serious power and versatility.

The ZWO ASI294MC Pro is available Online from Ontario Telescope and Accessories. I hope you enjoyed this review! If you’d like to stay up to date with all of the future posts on AstroBackyard, please sign up for my newsletter.

Dumbbell Nebula

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Capturing Narrowband Images with a Color Camera

A perfect match for the ASI294MC Pro (Sky-Watcher Esprit 100)

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iOptron SkyGuider Pro Review

|Equipment|25 Comments

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro is a portable EQ mount that offers a reliable solution for astrophotography on the go. The SkyGuider Pro makes shooting long exposure nightscapes without star-trailing possible.

On a stationary tripod mount, star trailing begins to show in exposures longer than 25 seconds. Depending on your camera’s focal length, the stars could begin to trail even sooner. To combat against this, amateur astrophotographers counteract the rotation of the Earth using a tracking equatorial mount.

The problem is, these EQ mounts can be heavy and obtrusive, making them spend more time indoors than under the stars. And thus, we enter the realm of the new highly-portable tracking mounts like the iOptron SkyGuider Pro.

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro is a very versatile and portable astrophotography solution for both camera lenses and small telescopes. Below, you’ll see images captured using the SkyGuider including the Carina Nebula, and the Milky Way.

iOptron SkyGuider Pro Camera Mount

iOptron SkyGuider Pro Review

The monumental difference that a “star tracker” makes in your astrophotography will be experienced after the very first exposure is taken. No longer do stars begin to trail after 20 seconds, and a new level of detail and clarity can be achieved. Nothing displays this trait better than a long exposure photo of the Milky Way or a deep sky nebula. 

The right ascension tracking motor of this camera mount allows you to “freeze” the movement of the night sky for long exposure astrophotography. Photographing deep sky objects through a telescope requires accurate polar alignment and balance, both of which are straightforward to achieve using the SkyGuider Pro. 

The William Optics RedCat 51 mounted to the iOptron SkyGuider Pro.

A lightweight tracking mount is a convenient option for those who choose to vacation under dark skies and want to image while you’re there. Bringing a full deep-sky imaging setup from home can take up a lot of trunk space, and simply isn’t realistic in many situations. Thanks to the SkyGuider Pro, I now have a completely portable deep sky astrophotography kit.

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro can be used on a regular photography tripod and is less obtrusive than a traditional, large equatorial mount. In a sea of competing portable sky tracker mounts, the iOptron SkyGuider Pro stands out as one of the more robust and capable options in this category.

This camera mount is suitable for heavy telephoto lenses such as the Canon EF 300mm F/4L, or lightweight refractor telescopes like the William Optics RedCat 51.

When selecting a telescope to use with the SkyGuider Pro, make sure it falls below the maximum payload capacity of 11 pounds. A heavier telescope with an increased focal length will put extra stress on the RA (right-ascension) motor of the mount, as well as magnify any issues in polar alignment or balance.

300mm camera lens

The SkyGuider Pro with a DSLR and 300mm camera lens attached.

Long Exposure Astrophotography

In this review, I will share my test images using the iOptron SkyGuider Pro as a camera mount (with a lens attached), and as a small telescope mount. Since receiving this mount from Ontario Telescope back in 2017, I have captured wide-angle photos of the Milky Way, and several deep sky objects using exposures from 30-120 seconds.

I enjoy controlling my DSLR camera with a third-party remote shutter release cable when using the SkyGuider with a small telescope or camera lens. This automates the imaging sequence of several long exposures so I can leave the camera running on its own.

The SkyGuider Pro is robust enough to handle a telephoto lens or small telescope in the 60-70mm range. The included 3-lb counterweight and shaft is adjustable so you can find the right balance to properly distribute the weight of your imaging configuration.

The William Optics Zenithstar 61 or RedCat 51 are both excellent telescope choices for the SkyGuider. I have used both of these telescope to capture images like the Andromeda Galaxy pictured below.

Andromeda Galaxy

Related: Using the iOptron SkyGuider Pro with a Small Telescope (Andromeda Galaxy)

iOptron SkyGuider Pro Review

The following video was published to my YouTube channel in July 2017. At this time, the mount was brand new and I knew very little about it. Since then, I have photographed many deep sky objects with this mount including Comet 46P Wirtanen, the Orion Nebula, and many more.

This should give you a good idea of the portability and size of this camera mount for astrophotography on the go. For an in-depth look at the mount from a technical standpoint, David Morris has put together a useful video on his channel.

This video above shows the camera tracker used with a stock Canon EOS 7D DSLR and a wide-angle lens. Unfortunately, I forgot my shutter release cable at home, so the exposures were limited to 30-seconds each. A star tracker certainly helps reduce star trailing at 30-seconds in longer focal lengths, but the real power of the SkyGuider is revealed when you shoot 4-minute exposures through a telescope. 

The EQ head of the SkyGuider fits in my palm, yet is packed with many useful features for astrophotography. I have not utilized the optional hand controller, camera shutter trigger, or even the ST-4 port. With successful 4-minute exposures taken at 250mm, I likely don’t feel the need to add an autoguiding system to my portable setup.

ioptron EQ mount controls

Accurate Camera Tracking in Small Package

It is astonishing at how small the iOptron SkyGuider Pro actually is. The mount weighs a mere 3 lbs and is easily transported in the included padded carry case. You can tell that iOptron paid attention to astrophotographers needs by including a bubble level, and an adjustable illuminated polar finder scope.

The build quality of the all-metal mechanical structure is evident when using the SkyGuider. The option for adding a counterweight and Vixen-type dovetail saddle for small telescopes puts this mount in a class above standard DSLR camera sky trackers.

For many amateur astrophotographers, the SkyGuider Pro is the first tracking mount they have ever owned. If you are ready to attach a small telescope to the SkyGuider for deep sky imaging, here are a few examples, and what I recommend.

SkyGuider Pro Specs:

  • 11-lb payload capacity
  • 4 Silent tracking speeds
  • Engraved, illuminated polar scope
  • Detachable alt-az base
  • Built-in rechargeable battery
  • Mounts to standard photography tripod
  • Incredibly Small
  • Micro USB charging port
  • ST-4 port for autoguiding
  • Camera trigger port
  • Port for optional hand controller

skyguiider EQ mount head and base

The SkyGuider Pro EQ head mounted to the upgraded William Optics base mount (wedge).

The illuminated polar scope of the SkyGuider pro allows you to quickly polar align the mount with the north celestial pole. The factory altitude and azimuth controls are solid, which make polar alignment quick and accurate. I altitude adjustment knob is smooth, and that it locks down securely.

I can easily move the location of the mount and tripod, and get polar aligned within 1-2 minutes. This process may take longer if you are new to polar aligning an EQ mount using Polaris.

In the picture above, you’ll notice I have upgraded the package to include the William Optics base mount. This is not a necessary upgrade to enjoy the mount, but it does make polar aligning the mount a more enjoyable experience. 

Accessories

iOptron offers several optional accessories for the SkyGuider Pro including the SkyTracker branded Ball Head, the SkyGuider Pro tripod, and even a hand controller. I did not require these accessories for my testing, as years of astrophotography adventures have left me with many useful bits and pieces from previous rigs.

If you’re considering the SkyGuider Pro, keep in mind that a sturdy tripod with the standard 1/4″ threads is needed to support the mount.

I used an existing ball head from my carbon fiber daytime photography tripod. The iOptron branded version appears identical to the one I use. As for the tripod, I finally put the sturdy tripod legs that came with my old Celestron CG-5 mount to good use.

with the DSLR mounted to the Ball Head, pointing the camera in any almost any direction of the night sky is possible. Being able to capture a specific area of the sky while tracking gives you the freedom to collect exposures on anything you want.

Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula | iOptron SkyGuider Pro with Canon EF 300mm F/4L Lens.

Ideal for Landscape Astrophotography (Nightscapes)

Based on my Instagram feed, It seems that astrophotography nightscapes are all the rage. Particularly, the types of shots that include the Milky Way and some sort of foreground interest whether that’s a tree, a tent or a mountain. If this type of astrophotography interests you, then a star tracker likely does too.

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro offers 4 tracking speeds, including a 1/2X tracking speed for imaging both the night sky and landscapes simultaneously.

I tested the iOptron SkyGuider Pro under the pristine dark skies at the Cherry Springs Star Party, and needless to say, it did not disappoint. I only wish I had captured some landscape interest in the shot rather than the silhouetted trees at the bottom of the image.

The images were stacked in DeepSkyStacker and then processed in Photoshop to boost clarity and contrast. A star tracker allows you to capture the faint details of the Milky Way in a single shot. By stacking the images together, you can create an incredible image. (Watch my Milky Way image processing video)

The Milky Way

A stack of 90-second exposures using the iOptron SkyGuider Pro with a DSLR camera and lens.

Choosing a sky tracker for your needs

These days, there are many options available in this class of portable astrophotography mounts. To add to the confusion, a lot of these EQ mounts have similar names and features. The models from iOptron and Sky-Watcher have received a lot of attention as of late:

The main question to ask yourself before deciding on the mount is what your photography goals are. If you are planning to shoot wide angle shots using a DSLR camera and lens, then the payload capacity of the mount is less of a concern. If you want to go deeper and use a heavy telephoto lens or a small telescope, then a more robust model such as the SkyGuider Pro is a better option.

The camera and telescope combination shown above is a great example of what’s possible using this mount. This highly-portable rig can be set up on a moments notice, on nights when you only have an hour or two to image. This convenience does not come at the cost of tracking accuracy or image quality either. 

The image below was captured entirely using the DSLR and telescope combo above, without the use of autoguiding. The image exposures were 4-minutes each at ISO 1600, using a hydrogen alpha filter in the camera.

rosette nebula redcat 51

The Rosette Nebula in Ha | Canon EOS Rebel T3i and RedCat 51 telescope on the SkyGuider Pro.

As you can see in the photo above, the SkyGuider pro tracks the sky effortlessly during long exposures. Any instability in the mount would show itself right away at this focal length over the course of each 4-minute exposure.

If you want to use the SkyGuider with a camera lens, the mount is just as stable and reliable. In the photo below, I mounted a Canon EOS 7D DLSR and 17-40mm wide-angle lens to the SkyGuider for an image of the Milky Way.

"The

I did not need to attach the included counterweight and shaft to the unit, as the overall weight of my camera and lens were low. The camera was attached using a ball head threaded to the mount.

The SkyGuider Pro is as capable as a much larger EQ telescope mount, in a small package. It is an attractive option for those getting started in long exposure astrophotography, or that want to build a travel rig to take on adventures.

For example, I was able to pack the SkyGuider Pro mount, tripod, and all accessories into my carry-on bag for a trip to Costa Rica. I was able to capture incredible deep sky images from another country thanks to the portability of this mount. 

William Optics Base Mount

You may have noticed in the William Optics Vixen style base mount and extension bar in my video about the RedCat 51 APO. This is a beautiful accessory for the SkyGuider Pro that is a big improvement over the original Alt-Az base of the mount. 

This version doesn’t just look a lot nicer, the controls are much more precise and secure. This upgrade is worth considering if you find yourself spending a lot of time fiddling around with the original base to get things locked and secure. 

WO Vixen style base mount

I have seen a big improvement in tracking performance since making this upgrade, thanks to the added stability of this base. I no longer worry about knocking the mount ever-so-slightly and ruining my polar alignment. Making small adjustments in either axis is much more accurate and smooth.

The color matched red extension bar gives you more flexibility in terms of balance. The added length allows for a better balanced load, and this feature comes in handy when attaching my heavy full-frame (Canon 7D EOS Mark II) DSLR camera.

SkyGuider Pro or Star Adventurer?

The models from iOptron and Sky-Watcher have been under the microscope lately, as their price point sits within the range of a broad range of beginners. The earlier version of this unit is known simply as the SkyGuider Camera mount, and it lacks the precision and portability of the newer iOptron SkyGuider Pro.

SkyGuider vs. Star Adventurer

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer on left, SkyGuider Pro on right

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer mount is strikingly similar in terms of features to the SkyGuider Pro with the same payload capacity and autoguiding abilities. I have not had the pleasure of testing a Star-Adventurer, but I will say that it appears to be a real contender to the iOptron model.

If you would like to share your experiences using the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer EQ mount for astrophotography, please feel free leave a comment. I know that these mounts have a loyal following of satisfied users, and I have seen countless incredible images taken using them. 

Read a review of the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer EQ Mount.

Final Thoughts

I have enjoyed the iOptron SkyGuider Pro over the past 2 years for many reasons, but a few of them stand out.

User-Friendly

I can get up and running with this portable mount in a matter of minutes. The first time I used the SkyGuider, I was off and running right out of the box. This mount is incredibly simple to use and straightforward (even in the dark). The mount silently tracks the night sky while I point my DSLR at different swaths of the night sky testing different exposure lengths and ISO settings providing absolute freedom to frame up new photos.

The battery is easy to charge using a micro-USB cable and lasts the entire night. The flashing lights when plugged in let you know that the battery is fully charged.

Mobility

Moving the entire mount (including a tripod) to a new location is easy, as the polar alignment process can be done in minutes. This is handy in the backyard to work around obstructions, and when traveling with the mount to darker skies. The mount itself is small enough to fit in my glovebox or carry-on bag.

I brought the SkyGuider Pro on my honeymoon to Costa Rica. The EQ mount, base, counterweight, and tripod all fit in a small carry-on bag for the airplane. I even had enough room for my DSLR camera and telescope as well. 

Versatility

The SkyGuider pro has opened the door to several new astrophotography projects that were previously out of the question. I am now able to utilize my full arsenal of photography lenses with my DSLR as if they were separate tracking telescopes. 

The ability to use this mount a telescope is an attractive option for owners of a small refractor such as the William Optics Z73 or similar telescope, as pictured below. At 5.5 pounds (Zenithstar 73), is about as heavy as I would go with this mount.

Telescope for iOptron SkyGuider Pro Mount

I highly recommend the iOptron SkyGuider Pro to beginners and those looking for a portable grab-and-go setup.

This camera mount has exceeded my expectations, and is often the mount I look to first when setting up in the backyard. Even if I have my primary imaging rig running, there is no excuse to not run the SkyGuider Pro as well for some deep sky astrophotography with my DSLR.


Read the Quick Start Guide (PDF)

It’s important to remember what these tracking mounts were designed for; portable astrophotography. It is tempting to want to push the SkyGuider pro to its limits and treat it as a substitute for a full-featured deep-sky EQ mount.

You’ll get much better results by setting your expectations for what these little wonders were intended for, capturing the night sky in situations where you couldn’t before! 

The grab-and-go, simplistic nature of this camera tracker is what I value most. The SkyGuider Pro continues to provide me with incredible wide-angle and deep sky images with minimal effort. The consistent results, and positive user experience make this EQ mount one of my favorite astrophotography products of all time. 

What do you think of the iOptron SkyGuider Pro? If you have used this mount for astrophotography, please let me know your results in the comments. Until next time, clear skies!

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Astrophotography Telescope Buying Guide – Under $2000

|Telescopes|3 Comments

Astrophotography Telescope Buying Guide

Note: This post was created back in July 2015, I have since purchased a new astrophotography telescope, the Explore Scientific ED102 (The number 1 telescope on this list)!

So you’re in the market for an astrophotography telescope, are you? There have never been so many affordable options for the amateur astrophotographer on a tight budget. I am often asked which telescope I use, and which one I would recommend for beginners. The quick answer is a high-quality, doublet or triplet refractor.  

Larger models can be very expensive (and heavy!) due to the high-quality ED glass used. I think you will be quite surprised at the performance of a small 65-80mm refractor such as the Explore Scientific ED80 I currently use for astrophotography. To view the types of wide-field images I have taken using this small telescope, please visit my photo gallery.

An astrophotography telescope buying guide? I thought you were an amateur? Yes, it’s true, but I decided that since I was doing all this intense research into which telescope I will be buying next, I would share it for others in my position to help streamline your search.

I have researched refractors made by Orion, Meade, Sky-Watcher, Tele Vue, Takahashi, Vixen, Astro-Tech, Explore Scientific, Stellarvue and William Optics. Please remember that this is my personal list, and I am by no means an expert! I tried to keep a high standard when browsing for telescopes.

All of the telescopes on this list are apochromatic refractors. I hope this top 10 list is useful for anyone looking to buy a refractor telescope for imaging under $2000 US. 

Keep in mind that with my limited budget, I am interested in getting the best balance of aperture, performance, and quality I can afford. A high-end instrument like the 76mm Takahashi might be the number one choice on your list, but it doesn’t make sense for my situation. So without further adieu, here is MY top 10 list of refractors for astrophotography:

10. Tele Vue TV76

Astrophotography Telescope - Tele Vue TV76 Doublet Refractor

Thanks to Marc Fitkin, there is an extremely useful and insightful review of this telescope on his blog. He notes the ability to use this scope as a prime lens for daytime photography as well as astrophotography. Tele Vue telescopes have a reputation for being top-quality instruments that will last a lifetime.

Because I will be using this scope for astrophotography exclusively, a model that excels in visual use has less of an impact on me. The reason this high-quality scope lands at 10 on my list is because it is at the extreme end of my budget, yet has an objective of only 76mm. Maybe one day I will be in a position to purchase premium-priced optics, but not yet.

Price: $2,000 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Ring Mount, 20mm Eyepiece, 2″ Diagonal, 1.25″ Adapter, Custom Soft Case

 

9. Sky-Watcher 80mm Esprit ED

Sky-Watcher 80mm Espirit

This is another model that comes with an aluminum case, diagonal, and a finder scope – a huge bonus for me. The heavy-duty Sky-Watcher exclusive “Helinear Track” focuser is a nice touch. This scope actually includes a thread-on field flattener and adaptor for Canon cameras! A major selling point for someone like me. 

I do, however, wonder how much of an upgrade this would be to my current ES ED80. The built-in dovetail is a turn-off for some, but I think it is a great feature. It is nice to see companies like Sky-Watcher catering to astrophotographers, a trend I am sure that will continue.

Update: I had the amazing opportunity to try out the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 ED APO in 2018

Price: $1,649 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Thread-on Field Flattener, 2.7″ to 2″ Adapter, 2″ to 1.25″ adapter, 2″ Diagonal, Canon Camera Adapter, Tube Rings with “V” Dovetail, Carry Case

8. Takahashi FC-76DC

Takahashi FC-76DC fluorite doublet

I can’t believe there is actually a Takahashi under $2000! Takahashi has a reputation for building a superior quality astrophotography telescope. This fluorite doublet is tied with the Tele Vue for smallest objective on this list. This instrument has the highest quality glass of all the telescopes on this list, and is very lightweight (4 lbs).

This telescope operates at a f/7.5 focal ratio, and includes a fixed dew shield. The downsides for someone in this budget are the small objective and 1.25″ focuser (though it can be adapted to 2″ with an additional accessory). The views through this “Tak” have been described as absolutely stunning.

Price: $1,949 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: None

7. Vixen ED103S Refractor

Vixen ED103S Apo Telescope

The official product description from Vixen states “ED103S lenses are almost free of chromatic aberration in all colors and are critically sharp edge to edge. The astro-photographer will be especially pleased with the high contrast images through this telescope.” 

The dual speed focuser, 4.1″ objective, and overall weight of just 8 lbs is what has me interested in this white beauty. Not to mention that it’s short tube length of 31.5″ makes it extra portable. A handy in-depth look at this instrument written by Pernel Johnson can be found here.

Price: $1,799 US (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Carry Handle

6. Meade 115mm ED APO

Meade 115ED Apo Triplet

Meade has catered to the next generation of imagers with this astrophotography telescope. The older version of this scope was almost identical to the Orion EON 115mm. The newer Series 6000 model uses an upgraded FK61 extra-low dispersion glass. Some notable features are the 3″ Crayford focuser, sliding dew shield, and overall build quality.

Update: In 2017, I had the opportunity to test the Meade 70mm Quadruplet APO

Price: $1,999 US (Ontario Telescope and Accessories)
Accessories Included: 3″ Diagonal, Cradle Rings, Mounting Dovetail, 8 x 50 Viewfinder, Hard Case

 

5. Stellarvue SV80ST

Stellarvue SV80ST-25FT

Forum users on astronomyforum.net reported that this Stellarvue Apo has an easy-to-use, well-built focuser. It allows the entire imaging train to screw together, giving you accuracy and stability when imaging. A flattener is a must-have to accompany this scope to eliminate coma, a trait many of these refractors have indeed. User reviews are very high for this precision instrument with the focuser being the biggest draw.

Price: $1,295 USD (OPT Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Hard Case

4. Astro-Tech AT106

Astro Tech AT106 Telescope

Sky and Telescope reviewed this scope back in 2009, saying: “the Astro-Tech AT106 provides all the benefits of a first-class 4-inch apo but without the premium price. I highly recommend it.” I have found a number of positive reviews about this modestly sized refractor. 

There is a great in-depth look including sample astrophotos at the scope on Stargazerslounge.com. This astrophotography telescope uses high-quality Ohara glass, and comes with a dual speed 2.7″ Crayford focuser. At just under the $2000 range, (including an aluminum case) This telescope is definitely a top contender for my hard-earned cash.

Update: It appears as though this telescope is no longer available.

Price: ?
Accessories Included: Hard Case

3. Orion EON 115mm ED

Orion EON ED Triplet Apo

An astrophotography telescope from one of the oldest most trusted brands in the hobby. Time after time, Orion products deliver and continue to impress their reviewers. My first telescope was an Orion, so this brand holds a special place in my heart. This APO has been around for a LONG time. (I found a review from 2006!)

This quality instrument offers excellent color correction by way of the FK-61 extra-low dispersion (“ED”) optical glass in its air-spaced triplet objective lens. With a focal length of 805mm at F/7, this is a fast, medium wide-field scope. The extendable dew-shield and multiple knife-edge baffles protect your eyes from off-axis reflections and glare to ensure a view with excellent contrast. 

The extra aperture for the price is what puts this scope near the top of my list. The massive 3″, rotatable , dual-speed focuser is an attractive feature for astrophotographers.

Price: $1,499 USD (Orion Telescopes)
Accessories Included: Tube Rings, Dovetail Bar, Foam-lined Carry Case, Starry Night Software

2. William Optics GT102

William Optics GT102

There are many fans of William Optics, and for good reason, they make quality instruments for a fair price. The focal ratio, 102mm diameter objective, and reputation of this scope make this one of my top choices for “next scope”. The optional DDG digital readout on the focuser is a neat feature, and would help me achieve accurate focus with my camera.

 I own the WO 72mm Megrez Doublet, and have had many great experiences with it for both astrophotography, and daytime nature photography.

Update: It appears as though the older version of this telescope is no longer available, and only the 20th anniversary edition is now for sale. Unfortunately, it now has a price tag that exceeds $2,000 USD! However, if you are looking for a more affordable option, have a look at the William Optics Z61

Price: $2, US (High Point Scientific)
Accessories Included: 2″ to 1.25″ Adapter, Mounting Rings, Dovetail

1. Explore Scientific CF 102mm

Astrophotography Telescope - Explore Scientific Carbon Fibre 102mm Apo Refractor

With over 4″ of aperture, and weighing just 7 lbs – Explore Scientific calls this the “perfect balance between portability and light gathering power”.

The HOYA ED glass is virtually free of chromatic aberration, and produces bright high-contrast images. The carbon fiber tube is highly temperature stable, eliminating the need for focus changes with temperature fluctuations. I am not going to lie, I am a little biased towards this telescope because of my unbelievably positive experience with the ED80.

Update: June 2016 – I bought this telescope!

I was contacted by Explore Scientific to upgrade my ED80 to the 102mm CF! Since then I have photographed many deep-sky objects including this version of the Lagoon Nebula:

M8 - The Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon Nebula

Price: $1,099 USD (High Point Scientific)
Accessories Included: 2″ Diagonal, Deluxe Case, Finder Scope Base, Vixen Dovetail

Well, there you have it, my top 10 list for anyone in the market for an astrophotography telescope. As you can see, I plan on sticking with Explore Scientific. At the end of the day, it comes down to value for me. If you have any hands-on experience with any of these telescopes and would like to comment, please do so below – I would love to hear them!

Astronomy Photo Gallery

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