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ZWO ASI294MC Pro Review

|Camera|46 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 year, 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 a 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.

The ASI294MC Pro has proven to be an incredible 4/3 sensor CMOS astronomy camera in the astrophotography community. This camera is responsible for my best deep-sky images to date, including the photos shown below.

ZWO ASI294MC Pro Images

It is the best camera I have ever personally used for astrophotography, and I continue to use it to this day. At under $1K (US), you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more versatile, reliable, and easy-to-use color astronomy camera.

This camera works exceptionally well with broadband light pollution filters and narrowband filters. Many people will advise you not to use a color camera with narrow bandpass filters such as H-alpha or OIII, but I have found the 294MC Pro to perform extremely when used with a duo-narrowband filter.
where to buy

Order the ZWO ASI294MC Pro Camera

If you want to see what others are doing with the ASI294MC Pro, have a look at the #ASI294MCPro hashtag on Instagram, and you’ll see that it’s not just me. You can also see exquisite example images with this camera on Astrobin. 

ZWO 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.

eagle nebula

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

The photo above was captured in a Bortle Scale 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:

Camera Sensor Sensor Size Resolution Price
ASI183MC Pro SONY IMX183 1" 20 MP Check Current Price
ASI294MC Pro SONY IMX294 4/3" 10.7 MP Check Current Price
ASI071MC Pro SONY IMX071 APS-C (1.8") 16 MP Check Current Price
ASI128MC Pro SONY IMX128 Full Frame (35mm) 24 MP Check 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.

In the case of the Celestron 8″ RASA F/2, no field flattener is needed as this optical system is very flat to begin with. However, a new backfocus distance is needed between the camera sensor and the top surface of the lens group cell. To achieve the required spacing of 29mm for the RASA, I used a Starizona filter slider drawer to give me some added backfocus.

RASA backfocus distance

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

Pixel Scale

The pixel size of the ZWO ASI294MC Pro is a great match for many of my astrophotography telescopes. The pixel size of the ASI294 is 4.63µm, which is in the middle of the road for the ASI camera lineup. For comparison, the ASI183MC Pro has a sensor with a 2.4µm pixel size.

So what does this mean for your astrophotography images?

In the amateur astrophotography community, a general rule of thumb is to use a pixel scale that is between 1.0 to 2.0 to be “well-sampled”. This is simply a rough guideline and should not be taken too literally. The math for calculating the pixel scale of a particular camera and telescope combination is:

pixel size (4.63) / focal length (550) x 206 = 1.73

When using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro with the Celestron 8″ RASA F/2, I have a pixel scale of 2.38 which some consider to be “under-sampled”. Theoretically, under-sampling can lead to blocky or pixelated stars in your image, although in reality, I have never known this to be a noticeable problem (in any of my telescopes).

Compare this to the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100, which provides me with a pixel scale of 1.73. The bottom line is, it’s worth calculating the pixel scale of your camera and telescope combo before making any big decisions. In my experience, the ZWO ASI294 is an extremely versatile choice for many telescope focal lengths.

lobster claw nebula

The Lobster Claw Nebula captured using the ZWO ASI294MC Pro and Radian Raptor 61.

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.

Taking flat frames with the ASI294MC Pro

I use 3 layers of white t-shirts when capturing flat frames with the ASI29MC Pro. I point the telescope towards the morning dawn sky with the t-shirts covering the telescope objective.

When the white t-shirt method isn’t cutting it, a flat field panel like the Artesky Flat Field Generator works exceptionally well. 

flat frame target ADU

Taking flat frames with the ASI294MC Pro using a flat field panel (Artesky Flat Field Generator).

I use the CCD Flats Aid tool in Astro Photography Tool to find the correct exposure to hit my target ADU (25,000). In my experience, the images are usually around an exposure of 0.03381 when using a gain setting of 120 (unity gain). This creates a flat field image with an ADU of approximately 25000.

I have heard that others have found success by using longer flat frame exposures, which can be accomplished by adding more layers of white t-shirts or with an adjustable flat panel.

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.

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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iOptron SkyGuider Pro Review

|Equipment|36 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 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.

iOptron sells two SkyGuider packages that include the alt-az base and counterweight kit, but one also includes the iPolar electronic polarscope device (you can also purchase the upgrade on its own). Keep in mind, to take advantage of the iPolar polar alignment feature, you’ll need to connect the device to a computer. 

buy the iOptron SkyGuider Pro

I suggest ordering the iOptron SkyGuider Pro Full Package without iPolar if you want to keep things ultra-portable. 

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 Radian Raptor 61 are both excellent telescope choices for the SkyGuider. I have used both of these telescopes 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.

The 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

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 makes polar alignment quick and accurate.

The factory wedge base is easy enough to adjust, and the altitude knob is smooth and 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.

If you find it difficult to polar align the SkyGuider Pro using the factory iOptron wedge base, consider upgrading to the William Optics  Vixen-style base.

William Optics Vixen-Style Base Mount

skyguiider EQ mount head and base

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

The high-quality fit and finish of the William Optics base is a big upgrade from the original, black iOptron wedge. The adjustment knobs on this version are more robust, which provides a more stable base for the SkyGuider Pro unit overall. 

 

William Optics Vixen style base

Again, it is not necessary to achieve a stable tracking platform for astrophotography, but those that mount a small telescope to the SkyGuider may appreciate the added support. 

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.

iPolar Electronic Polarscope

In 2019, iOptron released the iPolar electronic polarscope. This upgrade was designed to aid in the polar alignment process of the mount with help from a dedicated software on your PC. This requires you to connect the iPolar camera to your Windows PC via a mini USB cable. 

The process of installing the iPolar electronic polarscope on the iOptron SkyGuider Pro includes removing the stock illuminated reticle polarscope in the mount, and replacing it with the iPolar camera. There is a specific adapter for the SkyGuider, so you close the device into the mount case properly. 

iOptron iPolar

The iOptron iPolar electronic polarscope fastened to the SkyGuider Pro. 

With this level of polar alignment accuracy, it’s possible to shoot even longer exposures on the SkyGuider Pro. I confirmed this theory first hand when shooting the North America Nebula from my backyard using a small telescope. The following image was created using 62 x 4-minute exposures at ISO 1600 with a Canon EOS 60Da. 

North America Nebula

The North America Nebula and Pelican Nebula captured with help from the iPolar device.

If you are considering on making this upgrade to the mount, remember that you will now need to polar align the mount with help from a connected PC. This adds set-up time and additional gear to the process, so if the SkyGuider is your travel mount, it may not make sense for you. 

Related Video: Adding the iPolar to the iOptron SkyGuider Pro

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 at a moment’s 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.

Related: Read my Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Review

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. In late 2019 I finally got a chance to test out the Star Adventurer Pro, and it’s 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 to leave a comment.

Autoguiding with the iOptron SkyGuider Pro

I have successfully used the ST4 autoguiding port on the iOptron SkyGuider pro with a ZWO ASI290mm mini guide camera, and an off-axis guider. The Lumicon Easy Guider worked well on the William Optics RedCat 51 refractor to capture 3-minute exposures.

It is important to remember that the SkyGuider Pro does not have a declination motor, so you will need to turn declination guiding off in the settings of PHD2 to get it to calibrate properly. Once calibrated, I was able to utilize the dithering in my images captured on the SkyGuider. 

off-axis-guiding

Using the iOptron SkyGuider Pro with an off-axis guider.

Final Thoughts

The iOptron company creates some of the most innovative and practical astrophotography mounts in the world. 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

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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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