Category Archives: Tripod

The Top 5 Night Photo Mistakes

Bixby Panorama

Intern: I would like to follow in your footsteps to become an executive like you. What is the most important thing I need to learn?
Executive: That’s easy, do not make mistakes!
Intern: But how do I learn not to make mistakes??
Executive: You learn best how to NOT make mistakes by learning from the mistakes you do make. Also pay attention to the mistakes others make. You won’t have enough time to make all those mistakes yourself!

So what are the most common foibles that you hopefully won’t have to make yourself when shooting at night?

  1. Failing to turn off AutoFocus. Unfortunately at night autofocus is usually not a help as many cameras will seek focus and not finding it, refuse to take a photo. Or just as bad, will hunt for focus, and settle on something that is way out of focus for each shot. In the same league: forgetting to check focus!
  2. Forgetting to format the Memory Card. You’ve got autofocus off, and you’re really excited about that timelapse or star trail so you get your intervalometer all set and start. Whoops. That card is nearly full so instead of hours of great stuff you’ll get minutes and a full card.  It is best to format the card in camera to avoid possible problems if the card was formatted on a computer or in a different camera.
  3. Omitting a check for tripod stability. Uh oh. If you blow this one, it might mean your camera falls over and smashes against the rocks. We’ve been horrified to witness such a spectacle on more than one occasion.  Or about as bad: your camera waves in the breeze and gives continuously fuzzy results.  Step away from that tripod and look from different angles. Is the center column vertical?  If you push in different directions does the tripod move? Did you forget to fully tighten the leg locks? Center column lock? Head? Check again, just in case!  Steven snapped a lens in half because his leg lock wasn’t snug and the camera simply collapsed in the direction of the unlocked leg.
  4. Neglecting to start the intervalometer.  If you’re using an intervalometer it’s not difficult to press the start button and walk away only to discover you really didn’t press the start button OR the intervalometer was locked in OFF mode so just completely ignored what you wanted to do.
  5. Wrong settings. It’s easy to do, you spent the afternoon getting perfectly framed milky-smooth waterfalls.  Now it’s night time and you set your exposure to 30 seconds, but you left your aperture at f/16 and your ISO at 50!  Ooops. Or you just took that super high ISO test shot … and in your eagerness to catch some meteors you leave the ISO in the stratosphere.

You’ll notice we didn’t mention:

  • Failing to take the lens cap off.
  • Forgetting to charge the battery.
  • Failing to bring memory cards with you.
  • Leaving the quick release plate at home.
  • Toting your camera bag up a mountain while your camera remains in your car.
  • Leaving the polarizer on…

We’ve done all of the above. You might find our “Stackers Checklist” helpful to avoid these pitfalls and many more. Many of our students carry laminated copies with them.

What was your most embarrassing or frustrating camera faux pas?

Astrophotography – The Polarie

We have a once-in-a-while webinar on beginning Astrophotography. The purpose of the webinar is to get people acquainted with the tools and techniques required to delve into this interesting genre of night photography.  As we teach in that webinar the single most important piece of equipment you can buy is an Equatorial Mount.  An Equatorial mount is an apparatus that counteracts the rotation of the earth so that your camera can peer at the same place in the sky for long enough to capture an image without streaks. There are many equatorial mounts that range in price from almost nothing (and not even worth nothing) to more expensive than logic would dictate.  For more background please see our survey of Astrophotography Gear.

One of the newer pieces of equipment in the arsenal is a less-than three pound piece of gear called a Polarie.  Here is what it looks like with a ball head attached to its face.

Polarie – Close Up

What Polarie Can Do

As noted earlier, the primary purpose of Polarie is to counteract the effect of the earth’s rotation so that objects in the night sky can be exposed longer without getting streaking. Below are examples of 42 second exposures using an effective focal length of 215 mm. The image at the left is with the Polarie turned on in normal mode, the middle image is the same length exposure but in 1/2 speed mode, and the right is what you get if you use no tracking at all.

Polarie Test - Telephoto

Tracking is less critical when shooting with wider angle lenses. I ran a test with a 200mm telephoto lens because it is a more difficult scenario. For example when shooting the Milky Way, an effective focal length of 10 to 50mm makes more sense.

A Critical Look At Polarie

I purchased only the Polarie unit (about $400 USD) not any of the accessories. The unit is deceptively heavy at almost 3 pounds but at that weight it is still – and by far – the lightest equatorial mount you can find. The only other device in its weight class at present is the Astrotrac with a starting price about twice as much. The Astrotrac does come with a better tripod mount, however at a total cost of around $1300 USD.  I paired up the Polarie with my Canon 50D and the 70-200 f/4 lens.  The addition of a Giottos ball head brings the total weight of the equipment attached to Polarie to about 6 pounds.

The Positives

  • Inexpensive
  • Good instruction manual
  • Mostly easy to set up and to use
  • Suitable for a beginner
  • Good power for the price.
  • Can be powered with mini USB (or two AA batteries). Claimed life is 4 hours on AA batteries but mine lasted at least 6 hours using rechargeable batteries.
  • Compact and MUCH lighter than almost everything else.
  • Can be used in Northern or Southern latitudes.
  • Tracks at star, solar or lunar rates (and yes, they are all different) as well as a 1/2 speed rate which should be good for Landscape Astrophotography.

The Negatives

  • The back plate can be unscrewed to peer through the axis of the motor and also houses a built-in magnetic compass but the plate is almost flush to the Polarie body and it is quite hard to grip.
  • The inclinometer (angle measurement device on the side) seems like a good idea except that the markings are so small and coarse that to my eyes it is illegible.  The lighted inclinometer *might* help if the North Star is obscured by trees or such.
  • The front plate has a 1/4″ retractable bolt and attaches awkwardly to the motor plate with two thumbscrews that are hard to reach once a head is on the motor plate. I would have preferred that Polarie supply a 1/4 to 3/8″ adapter since most good heads attach via 3/8″ bolts.
  • The battery compartment door is a nail buster to open.
  • Since Polarie will certainly be used with a DSLR camera, Vixen really missed an opportunity to add a remote release cord – I see no jack for one.
  • Not sure what the point of the flash shoe is. I do see the Vixen has another (much larger) inclinometer that can be attached there, but you may be able to do better using an application on your smart phone.
  • The optional polar alignment scope is expensive, and bulky. It’s also complicated to operate because you must remove the ball head and camera from the device. BUT the weight of the camera and ball head is likely to create enough “sag” that the careful measurements will be wasted.  We like the SkyTracker much better in this regard.

There is a sight hole to line up Polaris – the North star. I used only that method to align Polarie and got fair results. To get really long exposures one of two methods will need to be undertaken to increase the alignment accuracy: either invest in a Polarie polar alignment scope at almost double the cost or do drift alignment. Drift alignment is not simple and probably would frustrate the aspiring astrophotographer. The Polarie can be purchased with an optional ratcheting tripod base which might be a good idea, however the stated load capacity of the bundled tripod seems too low to use with a heavy camera.

Noteworthy

Remember that you will need at least two heads and you’ll want them both to be ball heads for optimum configurability. The head on the tripod should be sturdy – see below for why.  Below I refer to tripod head – the apparatus that joins the tripod to the Polarie, and to the Polarie head – which is the hardware used to attach a camera to the Polarie.

Problem Areas

In addition to the negatives listed above, there are several other sources of problems including every point where one element attaches to another. For example: the Polarie base if not attached securely to the tripod head can rotate.  If using quick release plates the attachment point creates another source of rotation. If the camera is not securely attached to the Polarie head rotation can occur there, too. All the pieces together may severely tax a cheap tripod head making it difficult to hold up or adjust the load.  In my configuration I found I had to allow some slouching – meaning I had to adjust the camera so it was pointing slightly above my target and then tighten the head so that it would settle to the right place.

What Can You Do With A Polarie?

Maybe we should have put this section first! Some of these things can only be done with a Polarie are highlighted in RED.

  • Point the Polarie straight up and use it as an automatic panning motor for a time-lapse.
  • Align Polarie and take a series of shots of the night sky – the sky will stay in the same place in every shot – and any minor movement can be compensated for using Astrophotography procedures.
  • Outfit your lens with a solar filter and track the sun (e.g. for photographing eclipses or solar activity)
  • Track the moon e.g. to catch the space station flying across its face, the slow creep of the terminator, or just to get a time-lapse as the moon sets or rises.
  • Double your exposure on a landscape astrophotography shot by using 1/2 speed mode.

For more hints tips and examples on how to use Polarie, stay tuned to this channel!

My first test of the Polarie was to track the radiant point of the Orionid Meteor shower. My attempt was mostly a bust due to clouds, however note how stable the time-lapse is – and remember this spans almost 14 minutes of real-time.

Here are two more ways I’ve used the Polarie – as a horizontal panning device

As a sky tracking device

Astrophotography Equipment Recommendations – Beginner to Intermediate

For basic astrophotography I recommend starting with a wide angle lens and a sturdy tripod.  That’s it. Go out there and get some Milky Way or starry sky shots. Take plenty and average stack them (after aligning them). More on this later.

To image things like the moon, planets, galaxies and nebula you’ll want to move up to a decent telephoto lens (200-800 mm effective focal length) and an Equatorial Mount.

Mounts

To my thinking there are 4 categories of mounts with their approximate prices and assembled total weight (excluding telescope or camera):

  • Light, single drive (e.g. the AstroTrac, $900, 15 lbs, the Polarie or the SkyTracker)
  • Cheap ($189) and probably useless to decent but limited AstroView Equatorial $350, 26 lbs.
  • Mid-range, accurate with features like autoguide ports, and GoTo: Celestron CG-5GT, $690, 42 lbs; Orion Sirius, $1150, 43 lbs; Orion Atlas, $1400, 76 lbs. All are heavy!
  • High end: A hefty hunk of metal with a hefty price point: e.g. Celestron CGE Pro, $4,400, 154 lbs.

In the examples I’ve shown mostly equipment from Orion for three reasons:

  1. I have Orion equipment and they have a local store.
  2. They have a good reputation for being helpful and consumer friendly
  3. Their website makes comparisons easy!

The Portable Solution

The best portable solution is clearly the well made AstroTrac with the power cable, finder scope (upper right) and the drive at the bottom.

MaierAstrotrac

To use this you need several other bits and pieces shown here excluding a standard camera tripod.

MaierAstroTracKit

It’s a well engineered, portable system. All the gear together (including tripod, drive, camera, telephoto lens, batteries, etc) is about 16 pounds – meaning you can carry it with you. The next closest equatorial drive solution is about twice that heavy.

The cost is a minimum of $680 for the drive, polar scope and power cable. But you’ll need some additional head components (about $210), a power supply of some kind ($30) and perhaps a sturdier tripod. The total outlay will be under a thousand making it comparable to the low end of the mid-range mounts.

PROS: The AstroTrac is easy to set up, and relatively easy to align if you use the geared heads and the polar scope. You can pack it in a suitcase or a backpack and take it on an airplane!

CONS: More expensive than a single drive equatorial mount. Only drives one axis (all that is generally needed). Maximum tracking time is about 2 hours. Repointing the camera may misalign the drive. Need to build or buy a 12V battery pack (though this is easy to do). Need to learn your sky to find things.

The Equatorial Mount

Go cheap, go big, go fancy… but you’re not going light.

OrionEquipmentRec

The AstroView – which I have – requires drive motor(s) for another $130 or so bringing the total outlay to about $380. It’s carry weight is about 35 pounds if you include the camera, and all accessories including counter weights.

PROS: Inexpensive, includes polar scope, lighter of the many mount options, can support modest refractor or small reflector. Tracks well.

CONS: No guide port, limited to about 12 pounds of capacity, no “GoTo” option so you have to learn your skies to use it well. Tripod is thin aluminum. It’s sturdy but may not hold up to extended use.

A step up from the entry level mount would be something like the SkyView Pro ($850) It includes a “GoTo” computerized control which is a great help to the novice and helps you with alignment routines. I’d probably opt for the Orion Sirius ($1150) however as it supports 10 more pounds (30 total) and for that extra $300 bucks you also get a polar scope, the ability to use a decently large telescope and fancier drive options. A highly recommend mount is the Celestron CG-5GT at about $690 add $50 for a polar scope. All of the GoTo mounts will “slew” (move rapidly and accurately) from one object to the next and you can enter the object into a keypad to get there. Save even more money by using your computer instead of the “GoTo” unit.

Attaching A Camera to A Mount

If you opt for a telescope mount, you will want to consider using a ball head for maximum ease of pointing the camera. However you CAN attach the camera directly to the dovetail bar and use it just like a telescope (with limitations on the field orientation). Here I have used a ring collar that couples my telephoto lens to the ball head. This allows me to rotate the camera to change the frame without having to repoint. It’s also better balanced.  There is enough room on the front of the dovetail to put another head and another camera.

CanonAstroAttach

BallHeadAstro

I even “cheated” and am using a camera as a counter weight – see it hanging there in front of me?

SLC_scopeAstro

Telescopes

If you decide to up the ante, here are a few commendable small, light refractors. None are “top of the line”, but I’ve had some pretty good success with the ED80. It’s biggest weakness is that it comes with no mounting bracket, and the focus mechanism is not the “dual speed” (fine focus) option that seems to help fine tune things. I did find that I could mount the ED80 on my scope without mounting rings by attaching it to a Vixen-style dovetail bar and a 1/4″ 20 cap screw. A hex bolt would work fine, too.  I drilled out one of the threaded holes in the dovetail bar.

OrionScopesRec

If you are thinking of going in all at once, various vendors offer bundles that might interest you.  Here are some examples from Orion (www.telescope.com)

OrionKits