Star Tracker Tutorial

November 14, 2017  •  41 Comments

Tired of grainy Milky Way photos?  Don't want to spend $2,000 on a new wide angle lens?  A star tracker is the easiest, and most cost effective way to capture higher quality nightscapes!  Star trackers move the camera at the same speed as the stars, allowing you to take much longer photos without any star trails.  The key to this process is an accurate polar alignment.  The star tracker must be pointed directly at the North or South Pole (where the stars all rotate around).  Thankfully we have a few stars to help with a polar alignment - Polaris in the northern hemisphere, or the Sigma Octans in the southern hemisphere.  This tutorial will cover everything you need to know about using a star tracker, from choosing the correct model, to setting it up, and even post processing!

Before we get into the tutorial, I thought I'd show some images taken with the my iOptron Skytracker Pro and SkyGuider Pro

Picture saved with settings embedded.

 

Is There Really That Much of a Difference?

Many people have asked whether or not a star tracker really makes that much of a difference when doing Milky Way photography.  Especially considering the fact that there are great photo stacking applications that can reduce noise very efficiently.  In my experience, a properly aligned star tracker will have a massive impact on image quality.  Let's take a look at a few comparison images to see the difference.

In the comparison below, we are looking at an ISO 12800, f/2.8, 10 second image vs a tracked ISO 800, f/2.8, 4 minute image.  Even from afar, you can clearly see a difference in color and image quality.

 

Untracked
Tracked

 

Let's take a closer look next.  When zoomed in, the untracked image is a grainy mess, while the tracked image looks beautiful!  Notice too, how the magenta color in the Lagoon Nebula comes through much better in the tracked image.  One last thing to note - The tracked image was a 4 minute exposure.  I could take an even longer photo, up to probably 6 minutes, without star trails.  This would result in even more detail, color, and less grain.  However, the amount of Hot Pixels would increase too.

 

Untracked
Tracked

 

 

 

Choosing a Star Tracker


Choosing the correct star tracker can be quite difficult, especially if you're just getting into astrophotography.  With that in mind, I set out to create a comprehensive buying guide that will explain every aspect of a star tracker, and help you make the right choice!  First, let's name the four main star trackers currently available.  First up are the iOptron models - the SkyTracker Pro and SkyGuider Pro.  Next are the two trackers from  Sky-Watcher - the Star Adventurer and Star Adventurer Mini.   I've spent a considerable amount of time using each one of these trackers over the past few months, and I have learned a lot!  

I've recently created the ultimate star tracker buying guide, which looks at the different weight limits, polar scopes, accessories, designs, features, problems, and prices of the four main star trackers!  After you read through this article, you should be able to decide which star tracker is right for you!  Click here to read my Star Tracker Buying Guide.

Once you've picked the right star tracker, you'll need to learn how to use it!

iOptron SkyTracker ProiOptron SkyTracker Pro iOptron SkyGuider ProiOptron SkyGuider Pro Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer MiniSky-Watcher Star Adventurer Mini Sky-Watcher Star AdventurerSky-Watcher Star Adventurer

 

 

Using the Star Tracker


One of the biggest problems with the star trackers is that they are somewhat difficult to use.  To make matters worse, the star tracker companies usually produce mediocre manuals and videos.  Plus, there aren't many good third-party tutorial videos on YouTube that show the full process.  Having struggled through this process myself, I wanted to create something that could help even the absolute beginner use a star tracker to its fullest potential. 

Over the past few months I've spent hundreds of hours working to create a series of tutorials for each star tracker.  My main goal with these courses is to teach you everything you need to know to create an amazing final image!  Regardless which tracker you have, I will show you how to set it up for wide angle nightscapes or deep space astrophotography.  We'll also cover the full polar alignment process, which camera settings to use, how to plan a photo shoot, and much more!  Of course, taking the images is only half the battle.  Therefore, I've included over 7 hours of Post-Processing lessons for each tracker.  These editing lessons will show you how to cleanly blend images together in Photoshop using my own personal technique.  If you're a beginner, don't worry!  I've included a series of videos specifically for beginners, which will show you how to use Photoshop, Camera RAW, and Bridge.

I guarantee you will feel much more comfortable using your star tracker and you will learn a lot about your camera, the night sky, Photoshop, and more!  You can check out the specific star tracker tutorials here.

In the video below, I explain the basics of using a star tracker for wide angle nightscapes.

 

 

Post Processing


While a star tracker will allow you to capture a much better image, you will need to blend two images together.  When the star tracker is turned on, the stars will be sharp, but your foreground will be blurry.  Therefore, you will always need two images to create a final photo.  If you are doing deep space astrophotography, you'll actually want to take dozens, if not hundreds, of photos.  Once you have a ton of photos, you can stack them together to reduce grain and bring out faint detail in your nebula or galaxy.

Over the past few months I've been hard at work creating a full-length Astrophotography Post-Processing Coursewhich will walk you through all of these different techniques and workflows.  This is by far the most comprehensive series of its kind!  

Once you have both images for your nightscape photo, you will need to blend them in post-processing.  This can be very difficult, unless you know the proper method.  After spending dozens of hours experimenting in Photoshop, I've developed my own personal blending workflow.  This method utilizes Luminosity Masks to create a very precise blend.  The best part is, you can do this process with a free Photoshop plugin.  If you are still new to Photoshop, don't worry!  I will walk you through the entire blending process in the Astrophotography Post-Processing Course.  Even a complete beginner will be able to quickly learn this technique and start blending their own images!

As I mentioned earlier, if you want to create an amazing deep space image, you will need to stack a lot of photos together.  However, stacking is just the beginning, and you'll need to know some special tricks to really make your astro images pop!  This is something I cover extensively in my new Deep Space Course.  This course was designed for anyone who's interested in taking photos of nebulae and galaxies, with just a DSLR, telephoto lens (or small telescope), and a tracker.  There are over 4 hours of post-processing tutorials included in the Deep Space Course.  I will walk you through my full workflow as I edit 10 of the best objects to photograph in the night sky.

Lastly, I'll also be doing a special "Challenge Peter" video each month!  If you've got some images you're having problems with, you can send them in and I'll try to edit them!  Once I've figured out the best approach, I'll record a new tutorial and upload it for everyone to enjoy.  This will be a fantastic way for everyone to learn some new tricks!

 


Comments

Peter Zelinka
Hi João,

No, I haven't tried that one before. I know there are a few trackers like that, but I have yet to try any of them.

-Peter
João Santos(non-registered)
Great work Peter!

Have you tried any mechanical star tracker, like the Omegon MiniTrack LX2, which are budget options (at around 129€ for the cheapest version)?

Thanks
Peter Zelinka
Hi Michael,

I do have the MSM tracker, and it does an okay job. However, the SkyGuider Pro is still my recommended star tracker. It is more versatile and can handle telephoto lenses.

-Peter
Michael(non-registered)
have you had any experience with the move shoot move device and if so whats your feedback on the device?
Peter Zelinka
Hi Cheryl,

I would double check that the base is securely fastened to the tripod and that the two screws on the sides of the base are nice and snug. Beyond that, it is possible that the polar alignment will drift if you move things. This is why I recommend double checking the polar alignment and fixing it before you start taking your long exposures. Also, if you are shooting with a wide angle lens, a small amount of movement isn't a big deal. You should still be able to shoot 3+ minutes with sharp stars even if the polar alignment is off.

-Peter
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