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How I Photographed a Nebula with a $200 Camera Lens

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Taking impressive deep-sky astrophotography images is not reserved for those using an astronomical telescope. A budget camera lens can be used to take images of some of the best deep-sky objects in the night sky.

A telephoto zoom lens can provide enough magnification to pull distant objects in space in for a closer look, but you’ll need to find the lens’ “sweet spot” for a clean shot. In this article, I’ll share exactly how I photographed a colorful nebula region in space using a budget camera lens and a DSLR camera.

In my latest video on YouTube, I photographed a nebula in the night sky using a $200 camera lens. The photo turned out really well, and I think it’s an eye-opener to anyone that thinks a telescope is needed for a task like this.

Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon and Trifid Nebula region photographed with a $200 Lens.

Although I do most of my astrophotography in the city, it should come as no surprise that I usually get much better pictures from a dark sky location (it really depends on the project). Light pollution washes out the night sky and can make it more difficult to locate and photograph your target. 

For the photo shown above, I traveled to a dark sky park located about 45-minutes from home. The location is special to me, as it was where I took my first image of the Lagoon Nebula through a telescope in 2013.

Nebula Photography with a $200 Camera Lens

In the video, you’ll see me set up my camera and lens to photograph the bright Lagoon Nebula that lies toward the center of the Milky Way core. 

The Lagoon Nebula is a stunning emission nebula in the constellation Sagittarius. The Lagoon Nebula is big (90 × 40 arcmins), bright (apparent magnitude +6.0), and it sits right next door to the beautiful Trifid Nebula.

If you’re new to astrophotography, you may want to stick to the brighter nebulae targets until you really get your system ironed out. Brighter nebulae like this make focusing, framing, and even image processing easier.

You can use an astronomy app on your smartphone to filter out the brightest objects available in the night sky. The dimmer and smaller the object, the tougher the entire process becomes.

astrophotography camera lens

Using a Telescope vs. Camera Lens 

My first deep-sky photo of the Lagoon Nebula was taken using a DSLR camera and a thousand-dollar astronomical telescope (Explore Scientific ED80). The telescope delivered crisp, well color-corrected images of my subject at a focal length of 480mm.

Telescopes, such as the apochromatic refractor, are designed to focus pinpoints of light (stars) without color fringing (chromatic aberration). They often use much longer focal lengths than a camera lens (higher magnification) and include robust focusers that allow you to fine-tune your focus position. 

Explore Scientific ED80

The Explore Scientific ED80 Apochromatic Refractor.

When it comes to deep-sky imaging, an astrophotography telescope will usually beat a camera lens every time, both in terms of the imaging experience and the results. 

After all, telescopes are designed to observe and photograph deep-sky objects at high magnification, camera lenses are not. 

Camera lenses excel at wide-angle shots such as Milky Way photography and nightscapes, but when long focal lengths are needed, you can’t beat an astronomical telescope.

However, the average person doesn’t own a telescope, but they may already have a DSLR camera and zoom lens at their disposal. At a focal length of 150mm and above, the larger deep-sky objects begin to reveal themselves in a long exposure image.

To prove that amazing deep-sky photos are within the grasp of an ordinary camera and lens combo, I chose to use one of the most entry-level kits I could get my hands on.

A Beginner DSLR Camera and Lens Combo

A dedicated astronomy camera is built for long-exposure deep-sky imaging, but if you own a regular daytime camera, you can still take fantastic astrophotography images.

For this project, I used one of the most affordable DSLR cameras on the market, the Canon EOS Rebel T7. I purchased this camera and lens as a bundle from B&H Photo Video earlier this year.

DSLR camera

The Canon EOS Rebel T7 kit lens bundle.

The bundle included two lenses, the Canon EF-s 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 IS, and the Canon EF 75-300mm F/4-5.6.

The Canon Rebel series of DSLR cameras are entry-level camera bodies, suitable for beginner to intermediate photographers looking for complete control over their shot. 

I’ve owned many Canon Rebel DSLR’s over the years, from the XSi (450D) to the T3i. I highly recommend these reliable cameras for beginners looking to take their astrophotography to the next level. 

The entire kit cost less than $600 (including the camera body and two lenses), but you can buy the Canon EF 75-300m F/4-5.6 lens on its own brand new for $200. 

The Lens

The Canon EF 75-300mm F/4-5.6 III is a budget camera lens that allows you to shoot at focal lengths of anywhere between 75-300mm. 

I’ve covered the astrophotography performance of this lens before, and it continues to impress me. As expected, this lens performs much better at lower f-stops.

I wouldn’t recommend shooting wide-open at F/4 for astrophotography. I’ve found F/6.3 to be a great middle-ground between light-gathering power and star quality.

  • Lens Mount: Canon EF
  • Focal Length: 75mm-300mm
  • Type: Zoom Telephoto
  • Focus Method: Extending Front
  • Autofocus: Yes
  • Image Stabilization: No
  • Weight: 480 grams (1.06 lbs)
  • Elements: 13
  • Groups: 9
  • Filter Size: 58 mm
  • Lens Coating: Super Spectra Coating
  • Type: Zoom
  • Maximum Aperture: f/4-5.6
  • Specialty Type: Telephoto

If you watched the video I made earlier this year (kit lens challenge), you’ll know that this affordable camera lens exceeded my expectations by a long shot.

Canon EF 75-300mm lens

The Canon EF 75-300mm F/4-5.6 lens used for my photo.

Shoot Longer with a Star Tracker

I don’t think the average person realizes that it’s possible to photograph nebulae in space that are thousands of light-years away with an ordinary camera and lens.

However, there is one key piece of astrophotography equipment that is critical for a truly amazing shot.

The key to capturing a great photo with a camera lens like this is the star tracker. The star tracker compensates for the rotation of the Earth, and a moving sky.

It’s essentially a smaller version of a motorized equatorial telescope mount, like the heavy-duty ones I use with my larger telescopes.

star tracker for camera lens

My camera and lens on a star tracker.

I highly recommend the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer to anyone looking to purchase their first portable star tracker for astrophotography. 

The star tracker allows you to take long-exposure images at long focal lengths (a maximum of 300mm with this lens) without star trailing. For the star tracker to work effectively, you must polar align the axis of the mount to the celestial pole. 

If you don’t have a star tracker, you can still take images of nebulae like this, but you will be limited to much shorter exposures because the stars will begin to trail after only a few seconds.

astrophotography

Aligning the polar axis of the star tracker with the North Celestial Pole.

When you compensate for the rotation of the Earth, all of a sudden exposure time isn’t a concern anymore.

You are free to experiment with less aggressive ISO settings, lower f-stops, and an exposure length that’s suitable for your tracker’s capabilities.

Star trackers, like the Star Adventurer, require you to manually locate and frame your subject and this can be difficult if your object is small and dim.

focusing the camera

Focusing the camera on a bright star using 10X Live-View.

If there aren’t any bright stars in the same field of view as your target, you may need to focus first and then pan over to your intended imaging location. This is quite common when getting set up. 

A red dot finder may help you align your camera lens with your subject, and a planetarium app such as Stellarium will help you “star-hop” your way to the general area. 

Expect to take several test exposures (15-30-seconds each) before you actually start taking your long-exposure images on your target. 

Camera Settings and Advice

At a focal length of 100-200mm, exposure lengths of about 2-3 minutes will provide enough data per shot to produce a great image. 

You’ll collect plenty of signal (light) in each shot, without having to crank the ISO up (which can increase noise) and you’re not asking too much out of your little star tracker.

I recommend using “maxed-out” settings (high ISO, fastest aperture) for the framing and focusing process, and to take a lot of test exposures until you are happy with the framing and sharpness of the object.

camera settings

I chose to use a focal length of 200mm on this zoom lens. This allowed me to capture the Lagoon Nebula at higher magnification, yet still capture a wide field of view of the area.

I used a roll of electrical tape to secure the lens at the 200mm position. This is an important step to remember, as you could easily lose your original focal length position while focusing the camera lens. 

Focusing the camera lens on a deep-sky object can be challenging. In my case, I had to turn the LCD display up and switch to ISO 6400 for the brightest stars in the frame to stand out.

Related Post: How to Focus Your Camera for Astrophotography

Once I was satisfied with the centering of my object and the focus, I switched back to my imaging settings, which is a less aggressive ISO 1600 at F/6.3.

The stars looked a little too bloated for my liking at F/5, and bumping the aperture down even 2 stops can make a big difference in terms of overall image sharpness.

Lagoon Nebula with a camera lens

Camera Settings for my Photo

  • Mode: Manual
  • File Type: RAW
  • Exposure: 120-seconds
  • Number of Exposures: 45
  • ISO: 1600
  • F-Stop: F/6.3
  • White Balance: Auto
  • Focus: Manual
  • Focal Length: 200mm (TAPED)

Equipment Setup Breakdown

The star tracker must be mounted securely to a sturdy tripod to operate correctly. I use a carbon fiber tripod that is lightweight, sturdy, and ultra-portable. 

A remote shutter release cable is necessary if you want to tap into longer exposure times (beyond 30-seconds) on your DSLR camera and automate a sequence of long-exposure images to fire off on their own.

Because the star tracker is battery-powered, the entire setup from top to bottom is completely portable and does not require any additional power to operate. Bringing an extra set of batteries for the star tracker and the camera will help avoid cutting the imaging sessions short. 

A dew heater is recommended to avoid moisture on the camera lens, but this will require an additional power source to run (a portable USB charger device may be all you need). 

A small Bahtinov mask may make focusing easier, but it is not essential for a tight focus. Using the 10X live-view zoom on your DSLR camera will help you find critical focus on a bright star.

Here’s the complete setup I used to photograph the Lagoon Nebula with a camera lens.

portable deep-sky astrophotography setup

My portable deep-sky astrophotography setup.

My Results

The final picture includes 45 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 1600. The images were shot in RAW image format and stacked together using dark frames in DeepSkyStacker (DSS).

DSS is a free stacking software and a personal favorite of mine. Sequator is another excellent choice, and many people prefer the simplicity of this software over DSS. 

As you collect more exposure time overall, the signal-to-noise ratio is improved, and you are left with an image that can be processed effectively. 

The single image frames have a brown, washed-out appearance (see below), but this is easily corrected during the post-processing stages. 

sub exposures

My individual image exposures (sub-exposures) on the Lagoon Nebula.

The final image was carefully stretched (curves) in Adobe Photoshop to bring up the brightest areas of the nebula. The colors were carefully balanced (setting the black and white points), and a healthy amount of saturation boost was applied.

Other techniques used were star reduction, gradient removal, and selective color boosting. All of these topics have been covered in detail on this website over the years. 

To learn more about the image processing techniques I use, please see my premium astrophotography image processing guide

Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae by Trevor Jones.

If you are just getting started in astrophotography, I hope that this post has inspired you to take a second look at the camera equipment you may already own and start using it for the night sky.

For my latest astrophotography adventures, feel free to subscribe to AstroBackyard on YouTube and Instagram. Clear skies!

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8 Nightscape Photography Tips for Amazing Astrophotography

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Nightscape photography involves capturing a landscape style image, at night. It can include the beautiful Milky Way, a starry sky, or your favorite constellation.

This is a type of astrophotography, where long exposure images are taken to reveal the beautiful light of a seemingly ‘dark’ sky. Star photography requires quality optics, and some camera lenses are better suited for it than others. 

To really make your nightscape image amazing, you’ll want to capture an interesting foreground, too. This can be snowy mountains, a waterfall, or in my case, just a dark, wooded forest.

In the video below, I capture the constellation Orion on a not-so-clear night, using my nightscape photography camera setup including a star tracker.

8 Nightscape Photography Tips for Beginners

Astrophotography has one of the steepest learning curves of any type of photography, but it’s also one of the most exciting. It may seem easier to take a great nightscape image than a high magnification deep-sky image of a galaxy or nebula, but I consider it to be much harder.

If you have a background in landscape photography, you’ll have a huge head start going in. All of the daytime photography best practices including composition and the rule of thirds can help your nightscape image stand out. 

The Milky Way

The Milky Way stretches across the night sky. Several nebulae in Cygnus are visible.

If you want to take beautiful nightscape photography images, there are a few best practices to keep in mind. I have captured many astro-landscapes using a regular DSLR camera and kit lens that absolutely blew me away, and there are a few things all of those photos had in common.

  1. Get to a dark sky location (Bortle scale class 4 or better)
  2. Use a star tracker for long exposure images (Separate images of sky and foreground)
  3. Shoot during the new moon phase (Use crescent phases to illuminate the scene)
  4. Visit your location during the day first (Plan a safe route back to your location)
  5. Choose a subject that compliments your location and time (Seasonal constellations)
  6. Frame your subject in a creative way (composition, rule of thirds, light painting)
  7. Live-view focus on a bright star (stop down your lens for better stars)
  8. Use the right settings for a clean shot (keep ISO low, and shoot long)

As simple as these tips may seem, in a real-world setting, everything must come together at once for a truly amazing nightscape image. I will now explain each of these steps in detail. 

Milky Way Photography

Get Dark

Unlike deep-sky astrophotography through a telescope, it is very difficult to calibrate wide-angle nightscape shots to remove light-pollution and gradients. 

To capture vivid star colors, defined constellations, and even faint deep-sky nebulae and galaxies within the starfield, you must get away from the city lights.

Fortunately, this lends itself well to nightscape photography. Locations that are free of light-pollution are often natural areas that include beautiful landscapes of trees, water, mountains, and more natural wonders. 

Plan your nightscape photography session using an app such as Photopills, or simply a light pollution map that reveals the darkest spots in your area. 

light pollution map

Plan your next photography trip using a light pollution map.

Even a dark sky site will usually have a glow coming from a certain direction. You can either avoid this area of the sky, or play off of the glow to add to the overall composition of the image.

In the image of the Milky Way core shown below, you’ll notice a warm glow at the bottom right of the image frame. This is light pollution from the city of Erie, Pennsylvania across Lake Erie. 

Milky Way astrophotography

Track the Motion of the Sky

A star tracker is a convenient way to capture long-exposure night sky images free of star trailing. Once polar aligned with the celestial pole, you can capture incredibly deep images of space that include areas of nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters.

It is possible to capture amazing nightscape images without a star tracker, but you’re camera settings and approach to the shot will be more limited.

For example, when your camera is tracking the motion of the night sky, you can scale back ISO and aperture settings, and let the exposure time compensate for any lack of signal. This can help collect a cleaner, sharper shot.

Because the exposures of the night sky are moving independently from the ground below, you will need to capture a separate (still) image of the foreground and merge the two together (more on this below).

star tracker for astrophotography

My Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i (star tracker). 

A star tracker must be accurately polar aligned to track the stars effectively. I use an app on my mobile phone called ‘Polar Finder’ to give me a real-time reference for the position of Polaris (the North Star).

Related: Ultimate List of Astronomy and Stargazing Apps for Your Mobile Phone

New Moon Phase

Unless you are planning to photograph a moonlit landscape (there are benefits to the moon’s light for the foreground landscape), you’ll want to plan your session during the new moon phase. 

I regularly see new astrophotographers planning trips to a dark sky location during a full moon. This defeats the purpose of finding a dark sky because the moon washes out everything except the brightest stars in the night sky.

Use a moon phase calendar to plan your trip around the week surrounding the new moon. This will give you the best chance of capturing the most amount of stars in your image as possible.

A waxing crescent moon that sets later on in the night (or waning crescent that rises late) is okay, too. The closer your trip lands to the new moon phase, the better.

Over-exposed moon

The moon is beautiful in its own right, but it is not ideal when capturing starry nightscape images. Moon photography is another type of astrophotography all together. 

A Journey in the Dark

Depending on where you are located, it may be difficult to find areas with a good mix of land and sky. Looking over a large, open body of water is great, but the foreground lacks interest because it is flat.

An area with high elevation has advantages in terms of sky transparency, and can also help you line up fascinating landscape features below the sky. A location that looks down over a valley or rocky water’s edge is a great start.

Make a trip out to your location during the day, and pay attention to features that may add interest to the shot. Like any great landscape photo location, you’ll need to make sure you can safely set up your camera equipment.

Taking photos in the dark adds another challenge to the mix. Take note of the area during the day, and any spots that will be difficult to navigate with only a headlamp to guide your way. 

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way photographed from a dark sky site away from city light pollution.

The Perfect Subject

The constellations and stars in the night sky appear to move throughout the year. This means that you can’t just choose the area of the sky you want to shoot and find it when the sky clears.

Use a planetarium app on your phone like Stellarium to get a preview of the night sky on the day of your photography trip. Not only are you limited to the constellations and stars of the season, but the ones that lie in the direction of your intended landscape. 

I like to photograph constellations as they rise in the east, so I typically look for landscape locations that include a clear open view in this direction. Capturing constellations setting in the west feels like a race against the clock, as they slowly fall deeper into the ground. 

Some of the best nightscapes are photos that tell a story about the location and time of year. An example is the constellation Orion in the winter sky, with a cold, snowy landscape below. 

star map

The Stellarium Online Star Map is a free tool to plan your night sky scene.

Framing the Scene

A wide-angle lens is a landscape photographer’s best friend, and the same is often true for nightscape photography as well. This will allow you to collect the widest possible scene that includes land and sky.

How wide is too wide? Unless a ‘fisheye’ view is the look you are going for, a lens with a focal length of about 14-18mm is great. The type of camera you’re using will change your overall field of view.

I find that my Sigma 24mm F/1.4 Art lens is great for wide-angle nightscape shots on my full-frame camera. On a crop sensor camera, this would be a little tight. If you’re using a crop-sensor (APS-C) camera, stick to a wider focal length of at least 18mm. 

A wide-angle landscape lens is ideal because you can capture a wide area of the night sky that includes multiple constellations and stars. Then, you can crop the image in post to isolate a particular area of interest. 

Achieving a Sharp Focus

Focusing a camera lens for astrophotography can be challenging. The trick is to allow as much light to reach the sensor as possible, and then use the camera’s live view setting to adjust focus in real-time.

You can then zoom in on an area of the image at the focal plane of the stars, and manually focus the lens. On Canon DSLR and mirrorless cameras, you’ll be able to magnify your image by 5X and 10X (30X with the Canon EOS Ra).

Once you have focused the lens, you can dial back the settings and take your shot. Some people like to mark the focus point on the lens with a white piece of tape. 

how to focus camera lens for nightscapes

I recommend the following camera settings to use when focusing your camera lens: 

Camera Lens Settings for Focus (Adjust After)

  • Mode: Manual/Bulb
  • Focus Mode: Manual
  • ISO: 6400 
  • F-Stop: F/2.8 (or below)
  • Exposure: 30-seconds

These settings should allow enough light in so that you can focus on a bright star. If you can find some medium-sized stars in the frame (or better yet, a cluster of varying star sizes), you can really dial in the focus.

Remember to scale back the settings like ISO, exposure, and f-stop for your long exposure images. Next, I’ll explain the camera settings I use to take nightscape photography images like the one below.

nightscape photography example

Nightscape Photography Camera Settings

For nightscape photography (and astrophotography in general), you want to maximize light transmission through the optics to the camera sensor. There is an exception to this of course when you begin to lose the quality of the stars in your image.

Photography at night requires exposures that are much longer than they would typically be during the day. This could be anywhere from 5-seconds to 3-minutes. 

If your camera lens has a maximum aperture of F/2.8, that’s a great place to start. Lenses that are even faster than that, in the F/1.8-F/2 range have an edge over the competition when it comes to astrophotography.

Milky Way Photography

The lens aperture is a critical specification to consider when choosing a camera lens for astrophotography. For nightscape photography, you will find the maximum aperture of your lens (or close to it) the most effective for your projects.

Your exposure time on each individual image will depend on the focal length of your lens, and whether you are using a star tracker or not. You can use the 500 Rule as a general rule of thumb when capturing images of the night sky on a stationary tripod.

The best ISO settings for night photography is a conversation that has been debated to death. Generally, a high ISO setting will introduce more camera noise in the image than a low one. Some cameras are ISO invariant for much of their ISO range.

The answer to this question depends on the camera you are using. For my Canon EOS Ra, ISO 1600, or ISO 3200 work well. I recommend shooting your nightscapes at ISO 800 to start. If the images appear clean, you can try bumping the ISO setting to 1600 for a brighter image.

The file type must be RAW for you to tap into the powerful features of software like Adobe Camera Raw after the image has been taken. This will allow you to change the white balance, adjust clarity and saturation, and much more. 

Here is a breakdown of the settings I use for a typical nightscape image:

Camera Settings for Nightscape Images

  • Mode: Manual/Bulb
  • Focus Mode: Manual
  • ISO: 1600 
  • White Balance: Auto/Daylight
  • F-Stop: F/3.2
  • Exposure: 90-seconds

As you can see, I have adjusted the settings from the ones used to focus the camera lens. The reason I like to lower the f-stop from F/2.8 to F/3.2 (despite losing light-gathering ability), is because this will sharpen up the image, particularly the stars at the edges of the frame.

The exposure time is also much longer (90-seconds), and this is only possible when a star tracker is used to compensate for the apparent rotation of the night sky. A separate, shorter exposure should be captured for the foreground to avoid blurring the landscape. 

To automate a sequence of exposures to fire off, I use a simple remote shutter release cable to control the camera. This allows me to choose the duration of the image, the number of images, and any delay between shots.

I typically shoot between 25-50 image exposures for a single project. Aim for at least an hour of overall exposure time to create an image with a healthy signal-to-noise ratio. I do not normally take dark calibration frames for my nightscape images as I would for a deep-sky project. 

As for choosing the right exposure, use the histogram to guide you. A well-exposed image will show the bulk of the data in the center, or just to the right of the histogram without clipping in either side. 

If you notice the highlights are clipped on the right-hand side of the histogram, you can reduce the exposure time, lower the f-stop, or dial back your ISO. I recommend lowering your ISO setting if possible. 

Below, is a typical looking histogram for one of my nightscape images. The second (left) peak of data is the shadows in the foreground portion of the image. 

histogram

A typical foreground image exposure could be 30-seconds long, enough to expose the dark landscape beneath the sky. This is where a setting or rising crescent moon can help illuminate the scene.

If you do not have a star tracker, stick to 30-second exposures. If the stars begin to trail in a 30-second exposure, scale the exposure time back until they are recorded at an acceptable level of sharpness. 

Light Painting

The concept of light painting refers to the act of shining light on a dark area to brighten it through a long exposure image. Even a subtle shine of a red headlamp can add color and light to selective areas of your image.

You simply need to take a long exposure image (eg. 10-seconds), and shine a light on the area you wish to highlight. It is very experimental, and the right settings will depend on the lighting effect you are going for. 

White light can help illuminate an otherwise dark area of the foreground, whether it is a rock, a handsome tree, or a path on the ground. Light painting allows you to add interest to the image by highlighting specific areas of the landscape.

In the image below, I used my red headlamp to draw the viewer’s eye to the crunchy snow and footprints on the ground. Painting with light can help add to a pleasing composition.

light painting

Post Processing

Processing a nightscape photography image takes time and patience. A great shot starts in the field behind the camera, but your processing skills will take it to the next level.

Adobe Photoshop is the tool of choice for most nightscape photographers. It offers the advanced processing tools needed to correct gradients, boost saturation, adjust levels, and much more. 

Some of the basic post-processing techniques applied to a nightscape image include color balancing, curves adjustments, noise reduction, saturation boost, and sharpening. 

Image Stacking

Before processing the final image, I recommend creating an intermediate file by stacking a series of exposures together. The stacking can be done manually in Photoshop, or with the help of an image stacking tool like Sequator

Seqautor is extremely easy to use and gives you some simple tools to enhance the image. This includes auto-brightness, high dynamic range, and enhance starlight. I use this tool in its simplest form, and leave all of the additional settings ‘off’ except for ‘remove dynamic noises’.

The main purpose of the tool is to build a clean image with less noise than a single exposure, and even a stack of 10 light frames will accomplish this. Make sure you use the irregular mask to select the night sky in the image without including the foreground landscape. (Here is a great tutorial by Alyn Wallace).

sequator tutorial

Sequator is a free astrophotography stacking program. 

Stacking a set of 10 image exposures or more will improve the signal-to-noise ratio, providing you with a cleaner image with plenty of depth and detail. You can still create a great image with a single exposure, but noise will creep up as you adjust levels and perform other enhancements to the image. 

To complete the image, you must merge the stationary foreground landscape with a ‘moving’ sky. The foreground will appear blurry in a tracked shot, so separating the two elements of the image using a layer mask is recommended (see below).

how to create nightscape image

Adobe Photoshop’s Select and Mask tool is a great way to carefully make your selection, and refine the edges of your landscape. Keep the foreground element of your image separate, and carefully remove the sky from the horizon upwards. 

Then, apply the foreground to the stacked image (of the night sky and blurry ground below) as a new layer on top. This way, you’ll have the benefits of a stacked sky image, with a sharp landscape below. You can move the background sky layer independently from the foreground, an experiment with different compositions.

Enhance Stars and Constellations 

If you’ve ever noticed how certain constellations, asterisms, and bright stars seem to stand out in a nightscape image, there is some magic behind this. You can carefully select these elements of the image and brighten them. You can also boost saturation. and add a subtle glow.

The easiest way to achieve this effect is during the image acquisition stage. A thin layer of high clouds in the sky (poor transparency), will naturally add a beautiful glow to the brightest stars in the sky. You never know when these conditions will occur, but it’s something to look out for.

Starglow Filter

You can also use a filter (such as the Alyn Wallace Starglow Filter), to create this effect when the skies are completely clear. A starglow filter threads externally to your camera lens and can be combined with other nightscape filters if desired. 

There are a few techniques you can try in Adobe Camera Raw to add interest to specific stars (and bright nebulae) in the night sky. The clarity and dehaze sliders can make a dramatic difference to your night sky image. You will need to experiment with these settings and adjust this enhancement to your liking.

Creating a star mask on the brightest stars of the image lets you adjust aspects such as saturation, and brightness independently from the rest of the image. This is a great way to help isolate a specific constellation or star pattern in the image.

clarity and dehaze

Use the Clarity and Dehaze sliders in Adobe Camera Raw to enhance a starry landscape. 

Top Processing Tools

The process of enhancing a nightscape image mirrors many of the techniques used for deep-sky astrophotography. If you are interested in learning the specifics of this process, consider buying my premium astrophotography image processing guide.

image processing guide

My image processing guide includes topics such as image stacking, and create a composite nightscape image in Photoshop.

Recommended Camera Equipment

It may surprise you to know that the camera equipment needed for nightscape photography is much more affordable than a deep-sky imaging rig. You do not need a robust equatorial tracking telescope mount to take great, wide-angle images of the night sky. 

Many of the same camera settings and tips that work well for deep-sky astrophotography apply to nightscapes, on a smaller scale. A large telescope with plenty of magnification is of no use for wide-field nightscape images.

For nightscapes, being portable and lightweight is of the utmost importance.

Tripod

Whenever you are taking long-exposure images (tracked or not), your tripod becomes very important. This is the stable platform that anchors your entire camera setup.

Do not skimp on your tripod, invest in a high-quality base that will reliably carry your expensive camera and lens in all sorts of outdoor situations. Choose a tripod that is strong, but also light enough to travel with for long distances.

An aluminum tripod is strong, but some are too heavy for travel. I suggest a high-quality carbon fiber tripod with a weight capacity of at least 25-30 pounds. I use a Radian Carbon Fiber tripod that is very lightweight, and very strong (50-pound payload capacity).

The best part about this tripod is its ability to unlock at the base, and rotate freely. This comes in handy when the equatorial head of the star tracker needs to be rotated during polar alignment. 

best tripod for nightscapes

Star Tracker

A star tracker will not only allow you to take long-exposure images that have sharp, round stars but will reveal deep-sky nebulae and galaxies as well. Under dark skies, a 90-second exposure will reveal faint dust, glowing nebulae, and rich star fields. 

A star tracker is essentially a simplified, portable version of a large GoTo computerized telescope mount. It does not include a computer database of deep-space targets for you to slew to, you’ll have to find objects on your own.

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro and Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer are my top choices. You can see the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer camera tracker attached to the base of the tripod in the image below. 

astrophotography equipment

Camera

Any modern DLSR or Mirrorless camera with an interchangeable lens is capable of amazing nightscapes. My first astrophotography camera was a Canon EOS Rebel XSi (450D), and I took some amazing images of constellations, aurora, and starscapes. 

A full-frame sensor has a big advantage when it comes to nightscapes. The large sensor will utilize the native focal length of a wide-angle camera lens without cropping the image. 

A DSLR/Mirrorless camera allows you to take RAW images (that can be adjusted on your computer later) and gives you complete manual control of the settings. I currently use a Canon EOS Ra mirrorless camera for nightscape photography. 

best camera

I use a Canon EOS Ra Mirrorless camera for nightscape photography. 

It features an astro-modified camera sensor that is sensitive to the h-alpha wavelength of the visible spectrum. This is handy when photographing areas that include many of the most popular nebulae in the night sky. 

You do not need a modified astrophotography camera to take stunning nightscapes. A stock camera will simply limit the amount of ‘red’ that is recorded in certain areas of nebulosity. Reflection nebulae, star clusters, and most galaxies are totally unaffected.

In my experience, light-pollution filters are not nearly as effective when used with a camera lens in a wide-angle photo. Shoot unfiltered, and get away from city lights for a natural-looking sky. 

Camera Lens

A standard kit lens will do just fine, but a camera lens with a faster f-stop is even better. My personal favorite nightscape photography lens at the moment is the Sigma 24mm F/1.4 Art series lens. 

A 24mm focal length is just wide enough to capture a large area of the night sky when used with a full-frame camera. If you are using a crop-sensor camera, you’ll want something wider for capturing nightscapes. 

Sigma 24mm F/1.4

When it comes to camera lenses for astrophotography, the most important features are a fast f-ratio, a sharp/flat field, and a chromatic aberration-free image. Some lenses cause color-fringing around the bright stars, which can be difficult to correct in post.

The Canon EF 17-40mm F/4L is a solid choice, although faster optics would help collect more light in a single shot.

Another great lens for landscape astrophotography is the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8. This lens is extremely affordable and performs exceptionally well considering the price. 

A wide-angle lens allows you to capture longer exposures without star trailing when mounted to a stationary tripod. A longer focal length lens of 50mm or more will limit your exposure times (untracked) and will make framing a landscape scene a challenge. 

There are many great camera lens options available for nightscape photography, but here are a few of my personal favorites. All of these lenses were mounted to Canon cameras.

If you use a Canon camera with the new RF mount (such as the Canon EOS Ra), you will need to buy a Canon EF – EOS R adapter to use these EF mount lenses.

The Bottom Line

A great nightscape image can include a constellation, the Milky Way, auroras, or even the moon and planets. I believe the key to a memorable nightscape image is to tell a story of the location and time of where it was taken.

Try to replicate the feeling you had in the moment, and how magical the sky appeared above your head that night.

Space is impossibly beautiful and captivating. Once you learn the basics of nightscape photography and begin to apply some of the tips outlined on this page, I think you’ll find it a lot easier to tell your story.

star photography

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Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Review

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The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro is an extremely popular portable star tracker designed for astrophotography. After using iOptron star trackers for deep-sky astrophotography exclusively, it was time to see what all the fuss was about.

In this post, I’ll share my unbiased opinion about the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro, and actual images I was able to capture using it. The setup I used was the Pro Pack version, that comes with the counterweight kit, latitude EQ base, and fine-tuning mounting assembly.

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Review

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Review

If you would like to get a good look at the Star Adventurer Pro Pack in action, please enjoy my video review on YouTube: 

In the beginner stages of astrophotography, one of the most daunting challenges is choosing a reliable tracking mount for long exposure photography at night. Affordable, portable camera tracker mounts are a fantastic way to start, because they are not overly complex, and can provide promising results in a short period of time. 

If you’re new to the world of star trackers for astrophotography, this article should help clear things up. Essentially, a tracking camera mount allows you to shoot sharp, long exposure images of deep-sky objects in space. For me, this is often a large nebula or galaxy, but it could be anything from a star cluster to a comet.

The star trackers in this category have many names, from “tracking camera mounts”, to “multi-function mounts”. Whatever you call it, mounts like the Star Adventurer Pro (and Star Adventurer Mini) were designed to be portable, quick to set up, and take sharp images at varying focal lengths. 

This mount can be used in a staggering number of configurations for astrophotography, from dual-camera and telescope setups to a versatile time-lapse photography/video mode. Whichever type of astrophotography/videography you’re into, you’ll be able to enjoy up to 11-lbs of gear in more orientations that you thought were possible. (I never thought of using the mount in horizontal rotation time-lapse mode before!)

sky-watcher star adventurer mount

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro sits in an increasingly crowded space of portable astrophotography mounts. If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll know that I am no stranger to Sky-Watcher products, with my primary imaging rig consisting of an EQ6-R Pro equatorial mount and an Esprit 100 APO refractor. 

Does the fact that the Star Adventurer Pro matches my existing Sky-Watcher gear (lime green and white) affect my opinion of the mount? A little. The previous version of this mount was black and red, which would have matched the RedCat a lot better!

The outrage from the audience of my YouTube video (because I did not review the Star Adventurer mount) resulted in Sky-Watcher USA reaching out to me to test the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro Pro Pack. (Thanks!)

Portable Astrophotography Setup

The Star Adventurer Pro with the fine-tuning mounting assembly and counterweight attached.

The Pro Pack

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro comes in 3 packages. If you are interested in maximizing the full potential of this mount and would like to use it with a small telescope (like the William Optics RedCat 51) or heavy telephoto lens, I suggest investing in the Pro Pack.

What’s Included:

  • Star Adventurer Pro Mount Head
  • Dovetail L-Bracket with DEC Fine Adjustment
  • Built-in Polar Scope
  • Ball Head adaptor
  • Polar Scope Illuminator
  • Latitude EQ Wedge
  • Counterweight Shaft
  • 1kg Counterweight

The Pro Pack includes the multi-function mount, a polar scope with an external, switch-on illuminator, a counterweight kit, a ball-head adapter, the latitude (EQ) base, and a declination bracket. The build quality and finish of the mount are impressive. The main body of the mount is metal, and the core components like the mode dial, adjustment knobs, and polar scope are solid and secure. 

As I’ll discuss further later on, the fine adjustment declination mount on the L-bracket was a pleasant and much-appreciated surprise. 

Another option to consider is the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini (SAM). This version is the smallest of the bunch and can handle a maximum payload of 6.6 pounds. This miniature tracking platform was designed for landscape astrophotographers looking to capture long-exposure nightscapes using a DSLR or mirrorless camera and lens. 

If keeping weight to a minimum, and ultra-portability is important to you, perhaps the SAM is worth looking into. I find the full-size Star Adventurer Pro to be extremely compact and portable and can easily handle some of the heavier lenses I use for astrophotography like the Rokinon 135mm F/2

Thus far, I have enjoyed using the Star Adventurer Pro with my 250mm RedCat 51 refractor most. With my Canon 60Da camera, this provides an advantageous 40omm focal length. The image of the Orion Nebula below was captured using 16 x 90-second exposures @ ISO 3200 on the Star Adventurer Pro mount. 

Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula. Captured using a Canon 60Da DSLR camera and small telescope on the Star Adventurer Pro.

Complete Specifications (Pro Pack)

The Pro Pack includes absolutely everything you need to fully enjoy this mount, including the latitude EQ base and the counterweight kit. As with all of the gear I review on AstroBackyard, I was not paid to endorse this mount or any other Sky-Watcher product. Here are the core details of this star tracker:

  • Mount Type: Equatorial Camera Tracking System
  • Mount Weight: 3.63 lbs.
  • Built-In Illuminated Polar Scope: Yes
  • Autoguide Port: Yes
  • Maximum Payload Capacity: 11 lbs.
  • Type of Mount Electronics: Motorized (Non-Computerized)
  • Built-in Battery: Requires 4 “AA” Batteries
  • Motor Type: DC Servo, 144 teeth
  • Tracking Rates: Celestial, 1/2 Celestial, Solar, Lunar
  • Saddle Type: Vixen
  • Hand Controller: None

Here is a look at the body of the mount. This helpful diagram can be found in the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro manual (PDF). I have listed all of the numbered areas of the mount below.

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro

  1. Celestial Tracking Mode Dial
  2. Mode Index
  3. Polar Scope Cap
  4. Battery Base Cover
  5. Polar Scope Cover
  6. Mini USB Port
  7. RJ-12 Autoguider Port (6-pins)
  8. DSLR Shutter Control Port
  9. 3-Position Slide Switch
  10. Right Button and LED Indication
  11. Left Button and LED Indication
  12. Clutch Knob
  13. Mounting Platform
  14. Locking Knob
  15. Polar Scope Focus Ring
  16. Polar Scope
  17. Date Graduation Circle
  18. Time Meridian Indicator
  19. 4 X AA Battery Case
  20. Time Graduation Circle
  21. Time Meridian Indicator Calibration Screw
  22. Polar Scope Calibration Screw
  23. Worm Gear Meshing Adjustment Screw
  24. Sockey for 3/8″ Thread Screw
  25. 1/4″ to 3/8″ Convert Screw Adapter

Most users will most certainly power the mount using 4 X AA batteries, which will last for up to 72 hours worth of tracking. You also have to option of powering the mount using DC 5V with a  Mini USB cable (Type mini-b) from your computer. 

The power of a star tracker lies in the freedom and portability of the mount, so do yourself and power the Star Adventurer using batteries. 

The mode dial includes 8 positions. This gives you 7 possible tracking speeds (position 1 is “off”).

Tracking Speeds:

  • Celestial Tracking 
  • Solar Tracking
  • Lunar Tracking
  • 0.5X Speed (48-hour Rotation)
  • 2X Speed (12-Hour Rotation)
  • 6X Speed (4-Hour Rotation)
  • 12X Speed (2-Hour Rotation)

tracking rates

The mode dial lets you select the tracking rate of the mount.

How the Star Adventurer Pro Works

If you own a DSLR camera and a sturdy tripod, the Star Adventurer Pro opens up the world of astrophotography to you. That’s because this tracking camera mount will compensate for Earth’s rotation, and allow to capture long exposure images of deep-sky objects without star trailing. 

You could actually use the Star Adventurer for visual astronomy, too, if you wanted. The mount can handle up to 11 pounds of gear, which means a small refractor telescope with a diagonal and eyepiece are an option. 

If you have never used an equatorial mount for astrophotography before, the first thing you need to know is that polar alignment is critical.

polar scope

The built-in polar scope on the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro.

To polar align the Star Adventurer Pro, you need to align the latitude wedge with the north or south celestial pole from your geographic location. For me, that means adjusting the altitude control knob so that 43 degrees north is set.

Then, it’s a matter of moving the azimuth controls from side to side to place the north star in the correct position.

I use an app on my smartphone called Polar Finder to identify the exact position Polaris must be in from my location and time. Adjusting the Star Adventurer’s (or any other EQ mounts) Alt/Az controls is a quick and easy process once you get used to it.

Once you are polar aligned, you can dial the mode dial to 1X celestial tracking rate, which will match the apparent motion of the night sky. Images of 1-minute in length or more will no longer show star trailing, and deep-sky astrophotography is now possible. 

Using a Ball Head vs. Fine-Tuning Mount Assembly

If your interests lie in wide-angle nightscapes or Milky Way photography, chances are a ball head is your best option. A DSLR or mirrorless camera and wide-angle lens are relatively lightweight when compared to a telephoto lens or telescope. In this scenario, a ball-head will easily support your camera and lens, and you’ll have the freedom to point the camera in whichever direction you like. 

To use a ball head (not included with the mount) on the Star Adventurer, you can use the green 3/8″ ball head adapter. This attaches to the mounting platform, and then you can thread the base of your ball head to it. 

DSLR Camera and Lens

When using the mount with a DSLR camera and lens, the ball head and adapter is a handy configuration.

If you are using a longer lens in the 200-300mm range (or a telescope), you’ll probably want to use the fine-tuning mount assembly. The dovetail bar and declination bracket that comes with the Star Adventurer is probably my favorite feature of the mount overall.

You can mount your camera to the declination bracket of the Star Adventurer using the 1/4″ thread screw on the base of your lens collar or telescope mount. Then, just screw the counterweight bar into the bottom of the fine-tuning mount assembly, and adjust the height of the weight to achieve balance. 

Between adjusting the height of the dovetail bar on the mounting platform, and the counterweight itself, you should be able to really balance your load evenly. 

How to Find and Frame Deep-Sky Objects

The mount does not include a computerized GoTo system, so you’ll need to find and frame objects yourself. A lot of people ask me how to accomplish this, and it’s really not that hard. 

Just use a planetarium app on your phone, or desktop computer to get an idea of where the object you wish to photograph lies. That means finding the location of the object and the constellation that it is in, so you have a point of reference when your outside.

The brightest objects make this experience much easier. For example, in the northern hemisphere, the Pleiades star cluster is very easy to locate in the night sky, even in a light-polluted area. Once you’ve spotted its location, you simply use the RA and DEC controls of the Star Adventurer to “frame-up” the object using your camera lens or telescope.

If the object is bright enough, you can use the viewfinder on your camera to center it in the frame. You can also focus the image at this time, as long as their is at least one bright star in the field. 

To focus your camera lens or telescope, you can use the live-view mode on your camera, and zoom in 10X. You could also try using a Bahtinov mask, which will create a useful star pattern as a reference.

astrophotography

Set up under dark skies for astrophotography with the Star Adventurer Pro.

Helpful Tips and Advice

One thing I wanted to mention to new owners of the Star Adventurer Pro Pack is to remember to remove the 1/4″ to ⅜” convert screw adapter on the base of the wedge before installing it on your tripod.

The adapter is inside of the wedge base from the factory, but you’ll need to use a slotted screwdriver to remove it so it will thread onto your tripod.

The included adapter is handy to have but I feel that some owners will wonder why the wedge will not fit on their ¼” thread tripod if they haven’t removed it.

The Star Adventurer includes a DSLR shutter control cable to directly control your cameras shutter release with pre-programmed shutter intervals. I must admit, I have not used this feature because I am rather comfortable with my own intervalometer I’ve been using for years. However, if you don’t already own a remote shutter release cable, this is likely a nice bonus for you.

Which Tripod to Use?

If you already own a sturdy photography tripod, you can thread the altitude base of the Star Adventurer on top. Due to the added weight of your camera equipment (which may include a small telescope) a star tracker needs to be much more secure than a traditional panning tripod head does.

If you find that the configuration including your original photographic tripod is unstable, you should look into the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Tripod. This is an adjustable-height tripod that is also compatible with AZ-GT series and AZ5 Sky-Watcher mounts.

As an added benefit to amateur astrophotographers, this tripod includes a spreader for added stability and a handy eyepiece tray. 

tripod for star adventurer

What I Like

The mount feels very stable and adjusting the altitude and azimuth controls of the base are precise. I find that I can polar align the Star Adventurer quickly and accurately without the need for an electronic polar scope like the PoleMaster or iPolar.

My favorite thing about the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer is the declination bracket and controls. The DEC bracket makes it very easy to attach your camera or telescope to the mount. By releasing the clutch and turning the declination adjustment knob, you can point your camera or lens in any direction in the sky. When you have framed up your target, you can lock the RA clutch and begin tracking the object for an extended period of time. 

declination bracket

I really like the smooth, secure declination bracket on the fine-tuning mount assembly.

The included Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Dec Bracket lets you attach a camera or small telescope, which can then be pointed to different Declination angles as you wish. The Dec bracket includes a motion control knob and a Dec axis locking knob. With the Dec Bracket installed, the Star Adventurer becomes a functional equatorial mount including Dec angle adjustments operating with manual control.

The fine-tuning mounting assembly with the ¼” screw is absolutely fantastic. I love the locking mechanism underneath, the precision declination angle control, and the overall secure and balanced nature of the design. If you plan on using the Star Adventurer with a small telescope, this will likely be your favorite aspect of the mount too.

The decision to power the mount using AA batteries rather than a rechargeable lithium-ion style battery is a little surprising to me. However, I honestly don’t think this is a negative aspect of the design, because it’s actually quite a practical and handy feature. You can buy AA batteries almost anywhere, which means there is no excuse to be without power in the field.

Tracking Accuracy

As amateur deep-sky astrophotographers will tell you, tracking accuracy becomes extremely important when shooting through a long lens or telescope. I tested the Star Adventurer Pro with an equivalent focal length of 400mm (Crop Sensor DSLR + 250mm telescope), and the Star Adventurer held up exceptionally well.

Here is a single 1.5-minute exposure @ ISO 3200 using my Canon DSLR and RedCat 51 refractor on the Orion Nebula. I’d say those stars look pretty round, wouldn’t you?

tracking accuracy

This means that anyone shooting with focal lengths of 400mm or less can expect similar results when the mount is accurately polar aligned and balanced. These results are very impressive for a portable star tracker.

What Could Be Improved

As mentioned in Peter Zelinka’s detailed review of the mount, the mode dial can be easily switched on in your camera bag by mistake. Although I always bring a spare set of AA batteries with me when traveling with the mount, it would be a shame to run the batteries dry by accidentally turning the mount on. Perhaps a way to lock the position of the dial with a simple switch could be introduced for the next design.

The polar scope illumination is accomplished by clipping in a small red LED light on the front of the polar axis. The simple device runs on a small battery and can be switched on and off. I would have preferred the light to be inside of the mount at all times because it would be very easy to misplace such a small item when traveling. 

The azimuth screws on either side of the wedge base are simple and easy to adjust. However, to “lock” the azimuth position down, you’ll need to use an Allen key to tighten the bolts down all the way. In reality, you could probably get away with tightening these screws by hand. 

latitude EQ base

Astrophotography Results

I have used the Star Adventurer Pro for a number of deep-sky imaging sessions from my backyard, and from a dark sky site. Many people will use this portable mount with a DSLR camera and lens, but the real test of its tracking capabilities are realized when a telescope is in use. 

Here are some of the images I’ve managed to collect using the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro using a telescope with a demanding equivalent focal length of 400mm.

Pleiades Star Cluster

The Pleiades Star Cluster. Star Adventurer Pro + William Optics RedCat 51.

Andromeda Galaxy

The Andromeda Galaxy. Star Adventurer Pro + William Optics RedCat 51.

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro vs. iOptron SkyGuider Pro

If you’ve followed this blog for some time, you’ll know that I’ve been using my beloved iOptron SkyGuider Pro for a long time, and loving every minute of it. So how does the Star Adventurer Pro compare the SkyGuider?

First off, I’ll say that I found it easy to collect impressive images using both mounts. They share many positive similarities including the handy polar alignment scope and reliable celestial tracking performance.

The differences between the two mounts lie in the hardware, fit and finish, and overall user experience in the dark.

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer vs. iOptron SkyGuider Pro

For example, I found the latitude EQ base on the Star Adventurer Pro to be slightly better than the stock version on the iOptron. If you remember, I upgraded to the William Optics wedge base for the SkyGuider, and that evened the playing field. But you shouldn’t have to upgrade the base for reliable results.

I know that iOptron received a lot of valuable feedback about the included base, and I expect that they will improve upon the design in the future. It works fine, it’s just a bit finicky to get right. As you know, when it comes to astrophotography, your tripod and mount must be extremely secure and solid for successful results. 

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro wins in the polar scope department. The Star Adventurer Pro has a beautiful little scope in it, and it works great, but you need to attach an external clip to illuminate it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great design and it works fine. The problem is, it would be very easy to misplace and/or lose the tiny illumination device for the polar scope. The SkyGuider Pro’s light is built inside of the mount and you’ll never forget to pack it or leave it on. 

The declination bracket on the SkyGuider is notoriously unimpressive and users often upgrade this element. Again, William Optics came to the rescue and manufactured a gorgeous declination bracket design that feels like it should have been there from the start. In comparison, the smooth control knob and stable base on the Star Adventurer is my absolute favorite feature of the mount. 

I love that I can slide the dovetail bar up or down on the mounting platform on the Star Adventurer. This ensures that I achieve the perfect balance when mounting a small refractor and DSLR camera on top. 

Equatorial tracking mount

Final Thoughts

I must say, I now realize why everyone was so upset that I did not mention the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro when I discussed the topic of star trackers as a whole. Not only did the Star Adventurer Pro meet my demanding expectations of a portable tracking mount, but exceeded them in terms of enjoyment of the setup process. 

You may have noticed that I did not test the autoguiding performance of this mount, despite the fact that it includes a built-in autoguide port. Adding this element to the acquisition process can generate worthwhile results, but I tend to avoid this type of imaging when using a star tracker and save autoguiding for my advanced setups. 

Although the Star Adventurer has some quirks like a dial that’s easy to turn on by mistake, and an “add-on” polar scope illuminator, I think it’s an exceptional value and a great product. 

The fine-tuning mounting assembly and secure declination bracket is the most impressive design aspect of the Star Adventurer, and anyone who’s previously used an iOptron SkyGuider Pro will know why. If you’ve already invested in a competing model like the iOptron SkyGuider Pro, I see no reason to switch to the Star Adventurer Pro Pack.

However, if you’re in the market for your first star tracker, I think you’ll be absolutely thrilled with the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro – just make sure you get the complete package (Pro Pack!)

Pro Pack

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Choosing a Star Tracker for Astrophotography

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

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

I recommend the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2i (Pro Pack) for beginner astrophotographers looking for the best overall experience. 

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

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

Later that summer, I tested the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer (Pro Package). This is an extremely popular choice for amateur astrophotographers in 2020, and for good reason. I tend to recommend this star tracker over the others in most situations.

star trackers

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

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

How to Use a Star Tracker

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

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

portable tracking mount

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Milky Way

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

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

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

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

Stars in Orion

Popular Models in the “Star Tracker” Category

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

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

star tracker for astrophotography

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

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

Cygnus stars

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

What They Do Best

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

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

wide field astrophotography

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

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

Key Benefits of a Star Tracker

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

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

tracking camera mounts

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

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

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

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

astrophotography

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

Which Star Tracker is Right For You?

I am hesitant to state which star tracker is “best”, as I have found them all to have their strengths and weaknesses in terms of user experience in the field. Since this article was first published, I reviewed the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro and you can read it here

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

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

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

The iOptron SkyGuider Pro with a telescope attached. 

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

iOptron SkyTracker Pro

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

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

iOptron SkyTracker Pro and Camera Lens

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

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

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

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

Planet Mars and Pleiades

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

iOptron SkyGuider Pro

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

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

deep sky astrophotography

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

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

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

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

RedCat 51 mounted to an iOptron SkyGuider Pro

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

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

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

If you’re thinking about diving into the world of telescopes for astrophotography, I’d recommend the RedCat 51 Petzval APO or Radian Raptor 61 to compliment the SkyGuider.

Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer

The Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro is responsible for one of my favorite astro-images of all time, the Andromeda Galaxy. This portable star tracker is easy to polar align, and the pro pack comes with everything you could possibly need to mount your DSLR camera, lenses, and even a small telescope. 

The following image was captured using a Canon 60Da and a William Optics RedCat 51, mounted to the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro. I stacked 100 x 2-minute exposures at ISO 1600 for an unforgettable shot of M31:

Andromeda Galaxy RedCat 51

The Andromeda Galaxy captured using the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro.

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

sky-watcher star adventurer mount

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

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

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

I found the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer Pro to deliver an exceptional user experience, right out of the box. The hardware and premium finishes of this portable star tracker really stood out to me, and I love the mounting bar and counterweight kit. 

sky-watcher star adventurer

Using the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer at the Black Forest Star Party in September 2019.

Fornax Mounts LighTrack II

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

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

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

tracking camera mount

Fornax Mounts LighTrack II.

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

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

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

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

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

Fornax Mounts LighTrack II example image

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

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

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

Maximum exposure time

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

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

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

Star Tracker Comparison Chart

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

Brand Mount Weight Maximum Payload Max. Useful Focal Length Built-in Battery Autoguide Port
iOptron SkyTracker Pro 1.5 lbs. 6.6 lbs. 200mm Yes No
Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer 2.2 lbs. 10 lbs. 300mm Yes Yes
iOptron SkyGuider Pro 2.2 lbs. 11 lbs. 400mm Yes Yes
Fornax Mounts LighTrack II 2.8 lbs. 13.2 lbs. 500mm No Yes

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

best star tracker

Other Popular Star Trackers Available

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

star tracker comparison chart

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