Peter Zelinka | iOptron SkyTracker Pro Review

iOptron SkyTracker Pro Review

April 15, 2018  •  1 Comment

A star tracker is the most effective way to capture higher-quality nightscapes and astro images!  With a star tracker, you will no longer be limited by the earth's rotation.  These devices allow you to shoot much longer exposures, even up to 5 minutes, without star trails!  The SkyTracker Pro was my very first star tracker purchase.  Since July 2017, I've learned a lot more about star trackers.  I am now finally able to give a review on the SkyTracker Pro. 

If you are still unfamiliar with Star Trackers, consider reading my Star Tracker Tutorial and buying guide, which covers everything you need to know.

I purchased the SkyTracker Pro in July 2017, before embarking on a 3 month photography trip out West.  I planned to use the STP to capture stunning night sky images along the way.  While there were a few hiccups and problems, the SkyTracker Pro was a great investment.  Let's take a look at the SkyTracker Pro in-depth.

 

Ease of Use

The SkyTracker Pro is relatively easy to setup and use.  The main concern is simply getting the star tracker properly aligned to the North Star.  After about 30 minutes with the STP on my first night, I started to grasp how this whole process actually works.  Now that I am more familiar with star trackers, I can have it unpacked and ready to shoot within 5 minutes.

The STP includes a number of features that allow for easy alignment, including a polar scope, bubble level, latitude adjustment, and azimuth adjusting knobs.  Compared to something like the Vixen Polarie, which has none of these features, the STP is very easy to use!

The SkyTracker Pro has a built-in rechargeable battery.  It can be charged with a micro-usb cable, the same ones you use to charge your phone or many other devices with.  I love that I can charge it through my car's outlet while I'm driving to my shooting location.  However, if I forget to charge it, I might be out of luck.  The Vixen Polarie, for example, uses AA batteries and can therefore be used on long backpacking trips or on cold nights, without having to stop in the middle of the night to recharge.

For more information on how the STP actually works, please watch my full-length tutorial below.  It should explain everything you need to know about the STP.

 

Cost

The SkyTracker Pro currently retails for $280.  All things considered, that is a fair price for this star tracker.  The Vixen Polarie, one of the iOptron STP's competitors, retails for $400.  With this in mind, the STP is a steal!  The STP has many more features, like the polar scope, that allow for easier alignment and tracking, for significantly less than the Vixen Polarie.  You can also buy an optional Counterweight Kit for $80, but I would advise against it.  I cover the counterweight kit further down in the review.

Looking ahead, the SkyGuider Pro retails for $428.  The SkyGuider Pro is a much beefier setup that can handle larger cameras and lenses, and it even comes bundled with a counterweight kit.  All things considered, I would argue the SkyGuider Pro is the most cost-effective star tracker on the market.

 

Alignment

Alignment is made very easy with the polar scope and base.  Once installed and properly focused, you can relatively quickly find the North Star and get aligned.  You'll need the Polar Finder App (Android) or iOptron's own App (iPhone) to determine the proper alignment of Polaris inside the polar scope.

The SkyTracker Pro's competition, the Vixen Polarie, only has a small quicksight hole and no polar scope.  Achieving an accurate Polar Alignment with the SkyTracker Pro is very easy to do, which is a huge plus for this system.

The polar scope is a great tool for accurate alignments.  I especially like how you can adjust the red LED light intensity at any time, unlike on the SkyGuider Pro.  The polar scope can also be focused to your eye, but you'll need to remove it from the SkyTracker Pro first.  

I really don't have any complaints with the STP in this department.  Even if you are just roughing the alignment, the STP does a great job at wide angles.  Without doing a precise alignment, I was able to shoot 4 minute exposures at 14mm.  I also had success shooting at 100mm for up to 60 seconds, even without properly aligning Polaris inside the polar scope.  If you are still new to star trackers, please watch my full-length Star Tracker Tutorial, which covers everything you need to know!

 

Customer Service

I've been in contact with iOptron's customer service multiple times, for different reasons.  My first contact with them was in regards to the optional counterweight kit.  There was no good information online about how to balance the counterweight on the STP.  I reached out to iOptron, hoping for some clarity.  Unfortunately, they replied with one vague sentence and told me to look in the manual at a certain image.  This was of little help.

In March, my STP randomly died on me while I attempting to photograph the Orion Nebula.  I contacted iOptron and very promptly received a reply.  I was told to open the device and try a manual fix first.  Unfortunately, it didn't fix the problem.  I was then sent an RMA number and told to enclose a $12 check with my SkyTracker (to pay for return shipping).  Within one day of receiving it, iOptron had it fixed and on its way back to me.  It's a shame that iOptron requires customers to pay for shipping both ways, and I never did learn what was fixed.  I was hoping they would at least include a piece of paper saying what they had done.  Regardless, at least the SkyTracker Pro works now.

 

Counterweight Kit

I hate the optional counterweight kit.  Not only is it difficult to properly use, there's really no point in purchasing it.  The STP has a weight limit of 2.6lbs without the counterweight kit.  This is enough to hold a small entry level DSLR and kit lens, or mirrorless setup.  However, if you have a full-frame DSLR and a big lens, you will have trouble using the STP, regardless of whether the counterweight kit is attached.

The counterweight kit seems like a poorly designed afterthought.  The main problem is the STP's camera mounting block (where the ballhead attaches).  It simply wasn't designed to hold a telephoto lens, and the counterweight can't change that fact.  The counterweight bar will also mar the rubber on the mounting block.

Another thing I hate about the counterweight kit is the screws.  They tend to either get stuck inside the counterweight bar or inside my ballhead.  You will need to carry a screwdriver around with you to have any chance of getting them loosened.  I also had a very close encounter using the counterweight kit.  My camera's weight caused the ballhead to unscrew itself slightly from the counterweight bar.  This caused my camera to swing around.  If I hadn't completely locked down my ballhead's arca-swiss plate, my camera likely would've fallen to the ground and been destroyed.

If your camera and lens weigh over 3lbs, save the $80 and put it towards the SkyGuider Pro instead.  The SkyGuider Pro has a better build quality and the mount is designed to handle up to 11 lbs, when properly balanced.  This weight limit is why I ultimately moved up to the SkyGuider Pro.

 

Overall

If you have a lightweight camera setup, and want to capture much higher quality nightscapes, the SkyTracker Pro will make an excellent addition!  The STP is lightweight, portable, and can be used on hiking or backpacking trips!  The STP is also quite modular, you can remove the base and attach it directly to a ballhead, allowing for an even more portable setup.

The SkyTracker Pro is also very easy to align.  I love how the polar scope can easily be removed, focused, and adjusted as needed.  The fast, easy alignment is my favorite part about the SkyTracker Pro.  If you buy a star tracker that is a pain to align, you will never get the sharp, detailed photos you want.

My main problem with this star tracker is simply the low weight limit.  With that said, I was able to successfully track for 4 minutes at 14mm and up to 60 seconds at 100mm, even though I was at least 1 lb over the 2.6 lb weight limit.  If you have a heavy setup, (anything over 4 pounds, including the camera, lens, and ballhead) I would advise you to skip the SkyTracker Pro.  The SkyGuider Pro is much better suited for heavier payloads.

Ultimately, the SkyTracker Pro is a nice star tracker that is limited by its weight limit.  If I could go back in time, I would have bought the SkyGuider Pro instead.  For $150 more, you get a much more robust star tracker.  The SkyGuider Pro has a better build quality, stronger mount, better designed counterweight, auto-guiding capabilities, and will scale with you as you progress in your astrophotography. 

Finally, here are some of my favorite images I captured with my SkyTracker Pro!  All were taken with a Nikon D750 and either Nikon 14-24mm, Tokina 100mm, or Tamron 70-200mm.

 

Grand Teton NightscapeGrand Teton NightscapeThe Milky Way begins to set over the Grand Tetons, as seen near the Paintbrush Canyon Trailhead Trillium Lake - MidnightTrillium Lake - MidnightThe Milky Way shines brightly over Trillium Lake. Mount Hood can be seen in the distance The Galactic CoreThe Galactic CoreA detailed look at the Milky Way galaxy, the Lagoon Nebula and Trifid Nebula can be seen as well Andromeda GalaxyAndromeda GalaxyUsing a Tamron 70-200mm and iOptron Skytracker Pro I was able to capture the Andromeda Galaxy Rho OphiuchiRho OphiuchiThe Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex


Comments

Peter Patoschka(non-registered)
i would like to know what the longest possible time of exposure is with the ioptron or the skyguider...(speaking mid north hemisphere, say Europe or centre north america of course)
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