We test Vixen’s new compact tracker, designed for exposures of minutes, not seconds, and portable enough to take to sites far from light pollution.
A persistent misconception that beginners bring to amateur astronomy is the idea that a telescope is needed for photography of the night sky. The reality is that apart from shooting the Moon, astrophotography is difficult or impossible with most first telescopes. What beginners interested in celestial photography really need is a setup that captures the night sky as in the image below — no telescope needed.
First, a few words about the most important item in the astrophotography equation: the camera. The most common cameras used today are the cellphone and the compact point-and-shoot camera, both the size of a deck of cards. These can shoot the Moon and capture a few stars in a dark sky, but that’s about it.
What we are really interested in here are “enthusiast” cameras. The top end of this category is the digital SLR (DSLR) with interchangeable lenses. If you are serious about your photography, you probably already own one of these or want one. Another sector of the enthusiast category includes mirrorless cameras and large-sensor point-and-shoot models, which are becoming increasingly popular and are capable of fine celestial portraits. The Vixen Polarie is designed for all the cameras described in this paragraph.
A highly portable device, the Polarie will firmly hold your camera while compensating for the Earth’s daily rotation. It must be mounted on a solid camera tripod, since it will be holding your camera as it points skyward. An essential accessory for the Polarie is a good-quality ball-head mount (not supplied because many photographers already own one).
The Polarie unit itself is surprisingly solid. I noticed absolutely no “play” in the device. Nor did any mechanical anomalies show up during a night of photography. And this is a tidy device that, along with a DSLR, compact tripod and lenses, will fit in most carry-on luggage. An excellent guidebook accompanies the unit.
How accurate is it? I tried lenses ranging from 50mm down to 10mm and found that without the optional polar-scope accessory, the Polarie is at its best as a wide-angle tracker. In my tests, the polar-alignment peepsight offers accurate enough alignment for up to a 4-minute exposure with an 18mm or shorter lens. But this is plenty when used at ISO 1600 (normal for today’s enthusiast cameras), and fine starscapes are possible. At about $425 at Canadian dealers, this is an easy way to get into satisfying astrophotography.