Astrophotography is a very specialized kind of photography, and it has a steep learning curve. This is particularly true if you begin with “full-grown” astrophotography equipment.
But why would you want to complicate your life by learning how many expensive pieces of equipment must work together? Why not start with a simple, affordable, and frustration-free experience?
The Skywatcher Star Adventurer Mini can do that, and here is our review for you.
The Star Adventurer Mini (SAM in the rest of the article), is a compact motorized head, that can be used for creating time-lapse with controlled camera movement.
With the proper wedge, or in combination with a 3-way head, it can be transformed into one of the most portable equatorial mounts, allowing you to track the movement of the stars across the night sky.
It is the small brother of the Skywatcher Star Adventurer PRO we have recently reviewed. You can read the full review here.
- Payload Capacity: 6.6 lb / 3.0 kg
- Motors: 5V DC servo
- Polar Scope: Included. 10º field of view
- Illuminator: Included
- Power: 2 x AA batteries or 5V DC micro USB
- Dimensions: 4.1 x 3.0 x 2.8” / 10.3 x 7.6 x 7.0 cm
- Weight: 24.0 oz / 680g
Features & benefits
The SAM is packed with many great features, but it also has a few less positive points to consider.
Here are the main pros and cons of the SAM.
- It is affordable
- It is compact and lightweight
- You can set it up (and put it away) in a breeze, and it is easy to use
- You can control it via Wi-Fi with the ad-hoc app for IOS and Android SAM Console
- It offers three different Time-Lapse modes
- It can track at different speeds
- It can deal with a reasonably decent maximum payload of 3kg (6lbs)
- It takes the same accessories of the Star Adventurer
- It can dither between shots to allows better image quality
- The power consumption is low: 2AA batteries enables you to track for 24hrs
- It can also be powered with a 5V DC power pack
- It can control the camera for time-lapses thanks to the optional shutter release cable
- The polar scope, while included with the mount, is not integrated
- It uses the same flimsy polar illuminator than the Star Adventurer PRO
- The ring clutch of the Star Adventurer is replaced by a simple thumbscrew
Things To Consider Before Buying
If you are like me, reading lists full of technical jargon and Pros and Cons is nice, but often I am left wondering what all that means in practice.
So, before you go shopping for your new star tracker, let’s discuss some of the SAM characteristics more in detail, keeping an eye on the practical aspects.
Portability And Weight: Travelling With The SAM
The mount weighs only 680gm, it fits in the palm of your hand, and it comfortably goes inside any travel bag, photographic bag, or backpack.
Being that lightweight and compact, portability is not a problem: you will have no trouble traveling with it by plane or having to hike on trails to reach your location.
Of course, if you intend to do astrophotography with the SAM, you have to consider you will need some extra equipment, namely:
- A solid tripod
- The equatorial wedge
- The polar scope and polar scope illuminator
- The declination plate
- The counterweight
If your gear is lightweight, though, you can ditch the counterweight and declination plate, opting for a more travel-friendly ball head+adaptor combination.
If you already own a Star Adventurer PRO, you can use the accessories you got with the big brother for when you need to be on the move.
Battery Type And Battery Life
2AA batteries power the SAM, and despite creating its own Wi-Fi network, battery life is extremely good, and you could track for as long as 24 hrs continuously.
You can use both alkaline and rechargeable batteries, such as the Panasonic Eneloop Pro. A 5V DC power bank can also be used to power the mount.
SAM: A Wi-Fi Controlled Mount
Once you turn on the SAM, an ad hoc Wi-Fi network is created for you to join, in order to control the different functions of the mount.Once all is set, you do not need to keep the app running in the foreground, and you can use your device normally.
Important: the app is compatible with iPhones, iPads, and iPod touch running at least iOS 8. Android-based devices must run at least Android 4.4.
The SAM Console Apps
The SAM Console App can be downloaded for free, and it is very intuitive to use. As you launch it, a menu presents you several options:
- Astrophotography settings
- Astro time-lapse
- Regular Exposure Time-lapse
- Long Exposure Time-lapse
- Manual Control
- Polar Clock Utility
A nice touch is the possibility to create custom profiles in all the time-lapse modes.
Too bad you will not find any documentation in the app. Better to save the user guide on your phone (and have a printed copy with you).
Also, consider that with a Wi-Fi controlled mount is all good, nice, and easy until:
- You are in location, but your phone is sitting on the table at your home or in your car, miles away from your imaging site
- The phone runs out of battery
- You drop your phone, and it breaks
So, better to make sure your phone is with your mount and it has plenty of battery.
Payload Capacity: What Can You Mount On Your SAM?
The SAM has a maximum payload of 3kg, and that does not include the declination plate nor the optional shaft with 1kg counterweight.
This is enough to mount a micro four-thirds or APS-C camera with lenses ranging from wide-angle to mid-range telephoto lenses.
With full-frame cameras, because the lenses are usually larger and heavier than those for cropped sensors, you should probably limit yourself to use a fast wide-angle and “normal” (50mm) lenses.
The optional counterweight, combined with the declination plate, is a must-have to properly balance heavy and bulky payload, and you can probably push the payload weight to 4kg if you use it.
As with any equatorial mount, polar alignment is crucial to be able to follow the stars, so that you can take long exposures of the night sky without star trails.
The SAM comes with a polar scope and a polar illuminator (the same flimsy one used by its big brother). The difference is that while the Star Adventurer PRO has the polar scope built into the unit, with the SAM, you have to mount it every time you need to polar align the mount.
While fitting the polar scope is not a big deal, you cannot leave it mounted while imaging: either you polar align or you photograph.
The SAM Console app has a Polar Clock Utility to help you polar align the SAM in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
The main problem is that in-between removing the polar scope, loading the SAM with the payload and framing your target, you may lose the polar alignment or severely reduce its precision.
I reckon this is the biggest limitation with the SAM when using long telephoto lenses. Still, it is not a problem for the intended use of the mount: star fields astrophotography and starry landscapes.
Dithering With The SAM: A Big Plus For Astrophotography
Dither is a great feature of this mount, and all it takes is to flicker a switch in the app.
With the Star Adventurer PRO, to dither, you need a much more expensive and complicated setup involving a guiding system and a computer (or the ASIair).
Dither consists of slightly moving the camera between shots.
Dithering will change the relative position of hot pixels and other sources of fix noise with respect to the stars. When stacking the different images, the stars get aligned but not the hot pixels, and the noise will not. When the aligned images are averaged into the final one, the noise is greatly reduced, and you get a cleaner image.
Another plus of dithering is that it can spare you from taking dark calibration frames, which is quite a long and messy procedure to do with your everyday cameras.
To have it you may need to update your unit firmware to the latest version you can find here.
SAM: One Mount, Three Time-Lapse Modes And Five Different Tracking Speeds
The SAM has three different time-lapse modes:
- Astro Time-lapse
- Regular Exposure Time-lapse
- Long Exposure Time-lapse
With the Astro Time-lapse, the mount tracks the stars during the exposures but will return to the initial position after each shot.
For the Regular and Long Exposure Time-lapse, the mount does not move during the exposures, but it rotates of the desired amount after each shot.
For conventional photography, the SAM offers five different tracking speeds:
- 0.5x and 2x of the Sidereal tracking speed
SAM Packs: What’s Included
The SAM is available on the market in two packs, depending on the type and number of accessories you get.
The SAM Unit
If you have the Star Adventurer PRO already and you do not need to run two setups at once (like I do), you can consider buying the SAM alone and borrow the wedge, declination plate and counterweight from the SAM’s big brother.
This is also a good option to consider if you are in for classic time-lapse with pano movement.
In this package, you find the SAM with the ball head adaptor, the polar scope, and the polar scope illuminator.
The Pro Pack
The Pro Pack includes:
- The SAM
- The polar scope with its illuminator
- The equatorial wedge
- The declination plate
The shaft and counterweight are not included in the pack.
What’s Not Included (But Would Be Useful)
The counterweight is not included in any pack.
With the maximum payload being limited to 3kg and the polar align procedure not optimal for doing astrophotography with long focal lengths, the counterweight is rarely needed.
Nonetheless, should you feel you cannot balance your gear correctly, you can get the shaft and the weight as optional, provided you already have the declination plate to mount them on.
Shutter Release Cable
Because one of the major uses of the SAM is the creation of time-lapses combined with controlled camera movement, it is useful to have the SAM controlling your camera.
Optional shutter release cables are available as optional for Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and Sony, to connect the camera to the SAM snap port.
The mount offers an easy and intuitive way of doing astrophotography, still providing accurate enough tracking for wide star fields and starry landscape.
Here are some sample images of the night sky taken with a Nikon D810 on the SAM, courtesy of enthusiast (astro)photographer Robin Somes.
Alternative Star Trackers
There are few star trackers on the market that are alternatives to the Star Adventurer Mini:
- The Omegon Minitrack LX3, a fully mechanical tracker with a maximum payload of 3kg. Ideal for astrophotographers needed extreme portability.
- The Vixen Polaire, a compact star tracker with a maximum payload of 3kg.
- The iOptron SkyGuider PRO, and also the little brother iOptron SkyTracker PRO, also with a maximum payload of 3kg and built-in polar scope.
Overall, the Skywatcher Star Adventurer Mini is a great little tracker that will let you improve your astrophotography experience with ease.
Affordable, lightweight, compact, fun, and easy to use, the SAM can follow you wherever you go, always delivering incredible starry landscapes, star fields, and creative time-lapses.
If you are a beginner, with this mount you have all you need to learn the basics of astrophotography in a fun and headache free way.
And if you are already experienced, the SAM makes for a fantastic and portable second setup.