If you want to take your wide-field astrophotography to the next level, you really should be considering a good tracking mount. Traditional EQ or German equatorial tracking mounts can often be bulky and cumbersome, and expensive too.
A much more convenient option for astrophotography on the go is a compact one-axis motorized mount like this latest offering from iOptron. An upgraded version of the hugely popular SkyTracker camera mount, the Skytracker Pro has been designed to offer a more compact mount with better precision and near-silent tracking.
Can something so small really capture shots as well as a traditional EQ mount? And at half the price of a decent EQ mount too? This iOptron Skytracker review aims to help you decide if the SkyTracker Pro is the camera mount you have been looking for.
iOptron SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount Review
Mount Type: Ultra-compact single-axis EQ | Max Payload Capacity: 6.6 pounds | Mount Weight: 2.53 pounds | Body Material: Die-cast aluminum with ABS cover | Power Requirements: 1 x internal rechargeable battery via micro USB (3.7V Li-Poly battery 2000mAh) | Tracking Speeds: 4 | Body Dimensions: 4.5 x 4.5 x 3.75 inches | Warranty: 1-year limited (Battery: 90 days)
First Impressions Of The SkyTracker Pro
The first thing that strikes you about this SkyTracker camera mount is just how compact it is. You can easily fit the mount into the palm of your hand and you won’t have any trouble putting it in your backpack either.
The SkyTracker Pro package includes:
- SkyTracker Pro camera mount.
- Alt-azimuth base (pre-assembled and attached).
- AccuAlign dark-field illuminated polar scope.
- Brass ⅜ and ¼ inch threaded ball head mount plate.
- Padded carrying bag.
- Micro USB charging cable.
- 1 x lithium-polymer rechargeable battery.
You will also need a ball head and tripod to use the mount, neither of which are included. Although iOptron does sell official manufacturer ball heads and tripods, both use standard fittings and the kit includes adaptors to fit any ⅜ or ¼ inch threads.
Mainly made of metal, the mount feels solid and weighs just under 2.6 pounds with the battery. All the components are of reasonably high quality and the polar scope, which is included, is all metal outside too. The glass lens of the scope provides a clear view of polar alignment with etched guides that glow when the scope is switched on.
The attached altazimuth base (can also be detached for direct mounting on a tripod) is solid too, when you properly tighten it. The elevation adjustment can be a little loose but includes a silver clamp to eliminate all play. The azimuth ring locks down solidly too.
- Compact and lightweight—ultra-portable.
- Comes with a padded carry case for travel.
- Solid construction using an all-metal body and Polar Scope.
- Easy to polar align with the illuminated Polar Scope and etched reticles for locating Polaris.
- Can also be used in the Southern hemisphere at a flick of a switch.
- A solid and precise alt-azimuth base for easier alignment.
- iOptron app is available for iPhone or iPad for locating Polaris—it does cost extra though.
- Smooth DC servo motor is almost silent in operation.
- Slew mode for quicker framing of celestial images without knocking the camera out of alignment.
- Four tracking speeds allow for different astrophotography scenes, including lunar, solar, celestial, or landscape.
- Excellent for long exposure shots and wide-angle night sky panoramas.
- A quality lithium-poly battery offers up to 24 hours of continuous use and is easy to recharge with a standard micro-USB cable.
- Affordable and offers exceptional value for money.
- Limited payload capacity of just 6.6 pounds.
- Larger lenses or DSLR cameras will need the additional counterweight kit.
- Polar scope can catch on the camera as the mount rotates—once aligned, remove the scope, taking care not to knock the polar axis.
- iOptron apps don’t currently offer compatibility for Android or other non-Apple phones.
Setting Up Your SkyTracker Pro EQ Camera Mount
It’s hard to imagine how iOptron could have made this mount any simpler to set up than it already is. Out of the box, you simply put the SkyTracker Pro on to your tripod, attach a ball head to the plate then fix your camera body and lens.
Unfortunately, a ball head and tripod will add weight to the entire kit, although most carbon fiber tripods will weigh a little more than the mount. If you wanted to cut down on your weight, then you could always leave the base at home.
The polar alignment process is pretty simple too, and that sturdy, attached alt-azimuth base plays a large part. Without the base, you would have to perform a precise adjustment of the SkyTracker orientation using just the controls of your tripod. The alt-azimuth base simplifies that task and also includes a built-in bubble level.
NOTE: You will need to charge the internal battery before using the mount, which takes up to five hours for an 80 percent charge. Fortunately, it uses a micro-USB cable that you probably already have in your bag for your cellphone and can be charged from your computer too.
A portable battery pack is also available, although the internal battery will last up to 24 hours at the four tracking speeds.
There are three methods of nighttime polar alignment with this motorized camera mount:
- Center Polaris in the sight hole in the mount—the least accurate method, usually.
- Use the Polar scope and center Polaris in the middle of the lens.
- The most accurate way—center Polaris on the marked grid in the Polar Scope.
The first method is not too accurate but would be okay for short exposure shots when using shorter focal length lenses. The second method is easier, where you position Polaris in the center of the illuminated etchings on the Polar Scope. Although more accurate than the first, you may still find some tracking errors on longer exposures.
Using a grid, which you can find from links in the SkyTracker Pro manual, is by far the most accurate, but can be more challenging. The grid matches the reticle pattern in the Polar Scope and is pretty accurate but subject to some small errors. An iOptronPolarFinder app, which works on your cellphone, can also give a pretty accurate alignment.
For an explanation of how polar alignment works, watch the YouTube video below, which covers the topic.
Daytime Polar Alignment
It may seem strange in an astrophotography guide to talk about the daytime sky, but this SkyTracker camera mount is used by many to track the Moon or Sun in daytime skies. Obviously, you aren’t going to be able to use the Polaris star in the daylight.
If you’ve set the SkyTracker Pro at night, then one axis will be correct. The compass bubble level on the mount can indicate where Magnetic North is. If you correct it for the local Magnetic variation, you get True North which can be used to roughly align the SkyTracker mount. Just remember to use the correct filters, especially for the Sun.
Ease of Use
Set up and polar alignment can often be achieved in less than five minutes, perfect for that impromptu shot, either at home or on the road. On the back of the mount are all the essential controls you will need for gathering those stunning night sky views.
A large slider switch allows you to choose either Northern or Southern hemisphere orientation, while another allows for you to set the tracking rate. There’s also a rocker switch for the power on/off and a handy slew button for placing your objects in a frame.
A choice of four tracking rates allows for solar shots of the sun, lunar shots of the moon’s surface, 1/2x tracking for landscape astrography, and 1x for celestial tracking of the night sky. The quick slew feature allows movement at 180x forward or reverse, for re-framing a shot without disrupting your camera.
The Advantages of Using an iOptron SkyTracker Pro Camera Mount
The SkyTracker Pro allows you to take photographs of the night sky at much lower ISOs than using a stationary camera. In turn, you can produce some of the most detailed and clear images of the night sky that you can achieve with a star tracker for DSLR.
Longer focal length lenses can also be used for more details from deep space objects.
A photography star tracker allows you to use some of those slower lenses you may already have. With a tracker for a camera you can f/stop down and compensate for a loss of light with longer exposures.
The fact that a star tracker for DSLR like this iOptron costs much less than many of the high-end fast lenses means you can save money too.
Unfortunately, these longer exposures can lead to a static landscape appearing blurred in your frame. The large power switch of the iOptron SkyTracker makes it easy to switch off.
This is ideal if you want to take an image with the same exposure setting but a stationary camera. The slew mode quickly allows you to reposition the camera for stitching shots together.
Potential Limitations of the iOptron SkyTracker Pro
Although we mentioned longer lenses above, you always have to be wary of the limited 6.6-pound payload of this iOptron SkyTracker. The ball head is going to add at least 1–2 pounds to any payload and then you have to remember the weight of the camera body.
Longer telephoto lenses or some of the heavier faster lenses will simply be too heavy. Using all but the smallest of telescopes with a camera attached is out of the question.
If you want to use a heavier telephoto lens, there is a counterweight kit available, or maybe you should consider the beefier iOptronSkyGuider Pro, with an 11-pound capacity.
Larger DSLR cameras will benefit from the counterweight kit, too, which can prevent the mount dragging sometimes when moving. The lightweight nature of the mount can also mean the mount is more susceptible to knocks—stand well clear when taking longer exposure shots.
The original iOptron Skytracker was one of the first compact and affordable motorized star tracking mounts for DSLR cameras. This Pro version has improved on the original in almost every way, being lighter, smaller and having a slightly larger payload—and all at a lower price point too.
If you are the kind of astrophotographer who likes traveling to darker skies, this Skytracker camera mount will take up less space in your kit bag. It will even fit with a folding carbon fiber tripod in most hand luggage for flights. And, being battery operated, you won’t need additional power sources, just a backup USB charger.
This SkyTracker Pro mount isn’t just for travel though. The quick and easy setup makes it ideal for capturing shots in your backyard too. On those nights when your time under the clear skies is limited, this can be a brilliant way to get your star tracker astrophotography fix with just five minutes setup.
The iOptron SkyTracker Pro is an affordable way to get into serious long exposure astrophotography without investing in more expensive lenses. And it’s much cheaper than many similar motorized full-size equatorial mounts. This is one stellar tracker for DSLR cameras that you can take on all your future adventures.