Usually, astrophotography is a trade-off: noise versus star trails. An extra device like the MSM camera rotator can help you shoot clear and sharp photographs of the night sky even at a very low ISO.
What Is a Star Tracker Good For?
I grew up in one of the most light-polluted areas of the world. Whenever I travel to remote places, I am fascinated by the intense night skies and the seemingly infinite number of distant stars. When I started photography, I soon found out that there were even far more light-sources than we can see with the naked eye. Modern cameras allow us to uncover the magic of our universe that’s invisible even at places with little light pollution.
Yet, there is one disadvantage: The more of the distant light sources we want to capture, the less quality we get. Pushing our ISO makes the image noisy, pushing the shutter speed makes the stars appear as trails. From our perspective, the stars seem to move along the night sky. Thus, if we use a very long shutter, we see the distant stars’ trails along the sky. The best news about it: we can counterbalance the rotation of the Earth and photograph the stars as fixed elements in the night sky. A camera rotator simply moves our camera with the rotation of the earth. It makes your camera stand still in our galaxy!
The Move Shoot Move Star Tracker
Star trackers have been on the market for a while, and there are quite professional tools out there. Especially, if you are interested in deep-sky photography (i.e. isolating certain star constellations and galaxies with a long lens and creating images that almost compete with NASA’s imagery), you need to get ultra-precise gear. Mostly, that translates into bulky, heavy, and hardly portable equipment.
I consider myself a traveling photographer, though. New gear I buy should be among the lightest options on the market. Thus, I was searching for compact gear to shoot great images of the stars. No need for high-end products. There are experts out there who I admire, but it’s not my field. All I want to do is shoot the Milky Way at ISO 100 wherever I want.
During my research, I stumbled upon the Move Shoot Move (MSM) camera rotator. According to my information, it seems to be the smallest and lightest star tracker on the market. It weighs less than half a kilogram, its size (1.7" x 3.15" x 3.9") is only as big as two of my portable external drives, and it seemed to be easy to work with. Its price including an attachable star pointer is currently at $218.
The website of MSM appears to be a little confusing regarding its structure, and the product is shipped from China, but I decided to give it a try. I haven’t been disappointed at all: Even though shipping took quite a while, the customer service is really friendly and trustworthy. It takes a day or two until you get a response. But at least from my experience, you always get a friendly and caring reply that is not copy-pasted — something I really value, especially when you order from foreign countries.
Quality of the Star Tracker and Its Parts
Besides the main features like the rotator, a scope, and the “star pointer,” the rotator came with some Allen Keys as well as screws for the tripod and camera threads. It was a little intimidating at first, but turned out to be an easy setup. A little hint at this point: you need two ball heads to run the rotator, but I never used the Allen Keys.
The quality of the rotator itself is solid. It’s made from aluminum alloy, and you don’t feel that the product wasn’t really expensive until you discover the charger for the battery of the star pointer. It’s made of very cheap plastic, the battery isn’t really fixed, and currently, there is no adapter for foreign plugs delivered. Luckily, I own an adapter, so I could charge the star pointer, which is basically a laser pointer designed for guns. At least its menu refers to guns. Most probably, it's another manufacturer’s part.
While the pointer’s charger is made of cheap quality, the pointer itself is powerful. It’s so powerful that I doubt it’s legal in my part of the world. I don’t know about the laws and import rules for laser, but this is something I hardly ever saw here in Germany. You should definitely avoid looking into the laser when it’s operating. But I guess that’s clear for most people.
Shooting Time-Lapse With the MSM Camera Rotator
Besides its star tracking function, the MSM camera rotator also allows you to shoot rotating time-lapses, which I discovered to be quite handy. It took me a while to test the night-sky capacities of the rotator. Cloudy German summer skies, clear view only at full and half-moon, as well as too bright skies really tried my patience. It took me more than a month to find suitable conditions, so I found that I actually used the time-lapse function more often than the rotator’s astrophotography capabilities.
The setup for shooting a time-lapse is simple: You put the rotator on your tripod, fix the ball head on the rotator, and fix the camera on the ball head. I actually never know if I set it up according to the manufacturer, but it works best for me. Before you start, you only have to connect the camera with the rotator via a hot-shoe cable. Unfortunately, the connection only works with Nikon, Canon, and Sony. Their flash mount will send a signal through a cable, and after each photograph is taken, the rotator will let your camera rotate a little. I guess it’s where the name originates: move, shoot, move, shoot, move, shoot. For other camera manufacturers, there is an option to use an additional intervalometer, but I haven’t tried it yet.
All in all, It’s really simple: You only have to set up your camera’s interval shooting options, and the rest is done automatically. There are four different speed settings that you can choose for the rotation. A little experimentation is needed, but if you have ever tried time-lapse, you know that it’s always trial, error, and experience. My only problem is that I often confuse the direction of the rotator.
On the rotator, it says “N” and “S” according to the star tracking settings. There is a difference between tracking stars in the Northern Hemisphere and tracking them in the South. Depending on how you fix the rotator, you can easily confuse if it turns clockwise or counterclockwise. It also takes some time until you see in which direction it turns because the steps between each image are really small. I made the MSM camera rotator move in the wrong direction thrice before I was smart enough to draw an additional arrow to the display. Also, it can be tricky to read the settings in bright environments. This is only a problem in time-lapse though. For astrophotography, everything is quite clear.
Below is what a rotating time-lapse can look like. It’s only a few seconds of more work than setting up a steady time-lapse. But you need some time to understand and estimate how fast the rotator will turn. It depends on its own speed as well as the camera shutter speed.
Tracking Stars With the MSM Camera Rotator
I can’t wait for autumn to come to get better conditions in the night sky. Because this little device is so powerful!
I was very doubtful if the rotator would work according to my wishes and let me capture sharp night-skyscapes with low ISO settings. Would the camera be exactly in line with the axis of rotation? And how would I adjust the tracker to the axis of the Earth, anyway? Well, remember the mighty star pointer? It does its job.
To set up the rotator for night sky photography, you need two ball heads: One below the tracker to adjust it to the axis of the earth and another on top of it to be able to aim your camera wherever you want to. The only thing that seemed complicated to me was bringing the rotator in line with the axis of the Earth. You need to find Polaris in the night sky (it’s the tip of Ursa Minor, the “small beer”) and aim at it. But how do you aim? Use the incredible pointer and point at it. While you can’t see the beam of the pointer during the daytime, you can perfectly see it at night. Aiming is fun, because it really seems as if you could enlighten Polaris. It makes the adjustment as easy, quick, and accurate as possible. The adjustment takes me 20 seconds. And everything is in line.
Test Images and Limitations of the MSM Star Tracker
It’s the middle of summer, and the sky doesn’t get really dark. It’s not the perfect time for shooting the night sky, but I want to have all the gear issues settled once autumn starts. So right now, I am still optimizing my settings. I started by pushing it not too far. Shooting on a 20mm lens usually allows you to use shutter speeds of about 25 seconds without star trails beginning to appear. That’s not too long. My lens’ sharpness falls off dramatically when shooting wide open, so usually, I have to push the ISO really far to get a decent image of the Milky Way at f/2.8.
But I want to shoot ISO 100! Using the MSM tracker allowed me to basically do as I wished; the following image was shot at ISO 100, f/4.8, 129 seconds:
Obviously, I had to push it a bit in post, also because of a decent amount of light pollution. But the important part is that there is not a hint of a star trail, while noise is acceptable at least. You can only see the rotation of the camera because of the light trails on the ground (wind power stations). Jupiter appears as defined as possible, and the center of the Milky Way is clearly visible.
So let’s take it to the next level: 85mm — just for checking the possibilities. Usually, with an 85mm, I would be allowed to shoot for six seconds to avoid creating star trails. Six seconds? I've got a start tracker now, let’s multiply it by 50! The following image was shot at ISO 640, f/5.6 (don’t ask me why), and ambitious 317 Earth-turning seconds.
My only limitations during that night were the shortage of darker hours. In summer, there is just a small timeframe where the sky isn't too bright. Mr. Moon quickly ended the last astrophotography session, and I couldn’t try to make a ten-minute exposure yet. I’m quite keen to spend a whole dark night with the tracker because; from all that I have seen, it works accurately. The remaining limitations are only of personal nature (focus ability, staying up late) or of natural cause (weather, time of the year).
One last word before the final summary: Of course, you trade a sharp sky against a blurry foreground when you use a star tracker. If you want to get a sharp night sky and a sharp foreground, you always have to create a composite by blending a still and moving picture in post. While you could always do this using a random night sky background, it somehow seems far more real to me to uncover what was really there and to work everything out on location. Even for a great still nightscape, you will usually have to blend two images for focus and exposure adaption.
So far, I used the MSM rotator under less than ideal conditions. However, its main features seem more than convincing.
What I Liked
- Lightweight and portable
- Easy and quick installation
- Works exactly accurate when properly set up
- Comparably inexpensive
What Could Be Improved
- Quality of charger for laser
- Settings display could be brighter and give more information
- More options for rotation speed
- Connection to an app for adjusting the tracker
- Find a way to make time-lapse work without an intervalometer for Olympus, Fuji, etc.
While I was a little doubtful in the beginning, the MSM rotator really blew my mind. Since it’s small and lightweight, I haven’t removed it from my camera bag, yet. After trying it out a few times, you will soon develop a quick workflow and shoot amazing photographs of the sky at night or create moving time-lapses at ease.
The MSM camera rotator allowed me to freely decide my camera settings for photographing the night sky. I could counterbalance the sharpness fall-off of my lens at wide apertures and work with ISO 100 at night by using shutter times of more than five minutes without a sign of a star trail. Something that I was only able to test for a few minutes was shooting the night sky with a Micro Four-Thirds camera. MFT cameras have small sensors and capture less light. Under normal conditions, they are not very well suited for astrophotography. But the following cloudy result seems promising, at least. I shot it at ISO 200, f/2.0, 416 seconds (Olympus OM-D EM-10 MII at 17mm = 35mm equivalent) and did no post-tweaking except pushing the Dehaze slider a bit:
Instead of taking an additional astrophotography lens with me, I’d always go for the rotator. The only thing that you have to consider is that it can be quite tricky to create a blended composite in post. Especially when there are many objects penetrating the sky, you have to be creative: They will cause shadow-trails on the night sky that are hard to remove. However, for simple photographs with a straight horizon, there is no better option than a star tracker. If you long for lightweight gear like me, the MSM tracker is perfect. You can only purchase it directly from the manufacturer's website.