Not Giving Up
Seven years have passed since I started shooting deep sky object, but I can still remember my first piece of astrophotography equipment. It was a used LXD-75 tracking mount often used for telescopes. I brought it along on a shoot with a friend and didn’t even know how to work it at first. With a little help, I managed to shoot the M42 and M31 Nebula with a Nikon D3x and a 300mm lens.
I was shocked and delighted at the sight of a beautiful nebula displayed on my camera’s screen, but I didn’t immediately take on the project. There were many reasons, though not for a lack of interest. The tracking mount was extremely bulky, over 25 kilograms, and hard to manage without a personal vehicle. It was certainly not practical. Also, I was focused on getting my photography business started with a limited budget. Expert equipment for deep space shooting is essential for good results, but it comes with a hefty price tag.
This is my first DSO photo in my life captured in Nov 2009. With Nikon D3X, Nikkor 300mm f/2.8. ISO 160. Exposure 90s. Tracker was LXD-75. Single frame without calibration. The location was Pak Tam Chung in Hong Kong.
This was my second DSO photo captured at the same night with the left one. Same equipment and location. Single shot without calibration.
Astrophotography would have to wait. I put the idea aside, but had not given up.
Now is the perfect time for a fresh start. Ultra portable tracking devices and high quality astrophotography cameras are available at a reasonable price. Also, China has been developing better roads and infrastructure. That makes it easier to travel and eliminates the necessity of hiking out into the countryside with heavy equipment. I can drive away from the densely populated spill of city lights and into any number of sufficiently dark shooting sites. Under these conditions, astrophotography becomes a viable option.
Finding the Right Tools
Completing a suitable astrophotography rig has taken some time. It comes with a great story too.
One day, I was browsing the web and found a tracking mount named AstroTrac TT320X-AG from the UK. This was a very lightweight and portable device and I was attracted to its simplicity. Basically, I would only need to get the mount polar aligned and then I could mount my camera atop to start photographing wide field or even deep space objects. I checked reviews and the accuracy was promising. It looked well crafted in the product photo, though possibly not very sturdy. I figured that would be fine, because (after all) it was meant to be lightweight and portable. The company claimed it could load up to 15kgs of equipment and at that weight I could also mount a telescope.
So, I got the AstroTrac Tracker and a DIY wedge from a local dealer. I didn’t get the actual wedge and head at first because I wanted to test the basic set-up.
I had to wait a week for a clear night to test the mount and even though it wasn’t perfect weather, I couldn’t wait. I planned the evening as a practice run, so that I could get used to setting polar alignment. I had never done it before. I figured there would be other techniques with this new equipment that I would need to fine tune.
Indeed, it did take a while for me to get the mount polar aligned. I wasn’t even sure I got it, but one minute exposures were fine with the short focal length. I assumed it would be fine and I would try a longer focal length later.
My tests did not reveal any major issues, except a small problem with the polar scope and LED light attachment. The magnet holding the polar scope was way too weak and it fell easily. It fell on the ground at least three times that night and got scratched up. Then, of course, I over twisted and broke the LED light. I wasn’t the only one to have those issues and found some polar scope modifications for the AT after a quick internet search. I put a clip on it for a temporary solution.
I checked with the local dealer and they didn’t have an LED replacement. I ordered one from the official UK website and picked up the actual wedge after deciding the DIY version would not do. After I got the replacements, I did a second test run in China’s “Nam Kun Shan (南昆山)” area. It was a two and a half hour drive away.
January 1st, 2016: I pulled up on the hillside and set up my rig.
The sky would be clear from just two nights because of the new year celebrations so I had to make the most of the opportunity. I quickly polar aligned the mount. This time, I tried a two minute exposure with a 200mm lens and there seemed to be no issues. Again, I couldn’t be certain the polar alignment was correct, but without any sign of problems, I kept shooting.
The sky was dark enough, but the humidity was very high that night. After an hour, the dew began collecting. Much of the shoot was wasted. Still, I learned two valuable lessons. First, I had to check humidity levels for shooting. Second, my tele-photo lens (70-200mm) was not sufficient. I needed a telescope for the long distances.
Against the Odds
Ok, so the astrophotography project was going to be harder than I originally thought. I researched more and settled on the Takahashi FSQ-85 lens. It had the quality and focal length I was looking for and it would work with my mount.
Actually, some said the AstroTrac mount was not strong enough to load that lens. The dealer even laughed at me and said it was impossible, but since the total weight was within the mount capacity, I couldn’t see the harm in trying. I tried for a week to purchase the FSQ-85 that a dealer was selling. For some reason, I was getting the run around. Meanwhile, I knew that I would need the AT mount head, counter weight, and lense mount adapter. It also became clear that the dealer of the telescope had no idea how to install the lense on my mount. He couldn’t even tell me what size screw I would need. Fine. I could get the head first and figure out the mounting.
I was trying to get everything as soon as possible so I could beat the clock on more Chinese New Year celebrations. Time was critical.
I ordered the AstroTrac TH3010 Head from a local dealer, but when I went to pick it up from the dealer they said they forgot my order and it was just sold. They said I would have to wait for the next shipment. Yes, the whole thing was ridiculous and you can be sure I reported them for it! So, I had to order the head from the official UK office afterall. Another week passed and still it had not shipped. I was becoming increasingly anxious. AstroTrac was slow to respond to my emails until I nearly threatened them. Then, I got the package in a quick two days.
Wouldn’t you guess it? I finally get the AT mount head and it broke!
The head separated into two pieces and I could not get it back together. The black locking handle seemed to be too short to lock the pieces. I send an email requesting help from the manufacturer and again they are slow to respond. I searched forums to see if others had had this issue and one lady, Diane Miller, had written a great article about the Astrotrac. With her help, I FINALLY figured it out. There was a 3mm size part missing from my equipment. With only a few days to space, AstroTrac mailed the replacement parts.
I thought that would be the end of it, but there’s more. On the last day before I planned to leave for China from Hong Kong, I went to pick up the telescope lens and the dealer handed me the wrong lens plate. He mixed my order up with someone else. He didn’t want to waste the gas driving back and forth to fix the mistake, so he told me to pick up the correct order near his place in two hours. All I could do was stare at him with my mouth open, but I really needed the parts so I did.
Finally for certain this time, I had all the parts on hand. I set up the rig to make sure it was all set and when I tried to put the telescope on, I found that the screw he gave me was way too short. I couldn’t believe this kept happening. There was literally no time, but I convinced the dealer to meet me with the correct part.
So, on the last moment of the last day, after every last thing had gone wrong. . .
At long last I had my rig.
On the last evening of the Chinese year of the Lamb, everyone else was at home with their families while I was on the road. It was a moment to savor – driving toward the sunset, with no traffic, listening to music alone. It took just four hours to drive to a remote area of Guangxi. It wasn’t a perfect night. There were fireworks at midnight for the new year, but I didn’t hesitate to set up my rig and practice my technique.
Surely, I was the only person in the entire world taking astronomy photos under a sky full of fireworks 🎆.
Despite earlier setbacks, the system worked. As the entire village filled with smoke and raining gunpowder, I had to pack it up. The next morning I woke up and thought I might be dreaming. There was a spectacular mist, so I grabbed my camera and started shooting.
Finally, Going Deeper 😂
This is the AstroTrac astrophotography rig I worked so hard to build. I assembled the rig again in afternoon after the area dried out a bit and took some shots of it completed. I am happy to share the details and experience on my site, as it may be helpful to save any of you the time I put in. Check out that post here.
As night fell once again, I set off to work. I polar aligned the AstroTrac, pointed the telescope to the Orion nebula M42 (an easy target). I was still not sure the alignment was correct, but with the 105sec. exposure test on a 450mm telescope lens, it seemed to be working. Trails appeared on any exposures longer than that, although I’m not sure if that was on account of poor alignment or the tracking accuracy of the AT. As soon as the beautiful nebular image appeared on my screen, I zoomed in and checked that there were no major issues. It was so worth the effort.
I proved the fragile seeming AstroTrac was indeed able to carry a relatively bulky telescope like the FSQ-85 and deliver a satisfying result. I was pleased, anyway. I wouldn’t say it is very sturdy or stable after loading up the telescope and camera. It had reached its limit for sure. But, it was acceptable.
AstroTrac is well crafted and designed (minus the polar scope frequently dropping, which will likely drive you crazy). Once again, it has a simple and elegant design. The mobility is a great selling point. Based on my experience in photography, simplicity is the key. I recommend this tracker if you are not using 500mm+ focal length, but be sure to place the order with plenty of time to spare.
Enjoy this final image