During my recent trip to the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, I tried out the inexpensive and compact Move Shoot Move star tracker. This isn’t a full review, just my initial impressions, as I didn’t have a lot of time to try it out (for reasons I’ll mention below).
What Is a Star Tracker?
Here is the MSM setup for star tracking I used (recreated in the lab!):
A star tracker rotates the attached camera or telescope to continue pointing at the same part of the sky, if properly aligned! This allows for much longer exposures without movement of the objects in the sky. However, terrestrial items will blur, obviously.
I purchased “Basic Kit C”, which included a laser pointer for aligning with Polaris (shown above) and an alternative, a polar scope (not shown). The MSM Z Platform shown is not part of the kit. It was purchased separately.
In the photo, from bottom to top, I use the MSM Z Platform attached to the tripod. You could also use their V Platform, a regular tripod head, or a wedge/pan-tilt head that’s more specialized for applications like this. I’ll discuss these options below.
Next, I use the laser to align the MSM tracker to Polaris. The beam shoots up and to the right, as shown, so North would be to the right.
With the laser on, you adjust the vertical and horizontal alignment of the setup until the beam points as close to Polaris as possible. (Comparing their webpage to my photo above, you’ll notice they have recently switched to a shorter laser and the bracket that attaches it to the tracker has been refined.)
Using a laser is an easy approach when you don’t need the most precise alignment, such a situation like this where I’m shooting with a wide-angle lens and using the MSM to allow longer or stacked exposures. Here, achieving perfect Polaris alignment isn’t needed for acceptable results.
The beam is very visible in the night sky, so don’t use it in places where you don’t want to draw attention to yourself and definitely don’t point it near an airplane!
A Polar scope is more accurate (as well as discrete). Most higher-end star trackers use a polar scope.
Next you attach a tripod head or perhaps another MSM Z or V Platform and then your camera.
How Well Does It Work?
Compare the following images. The first one is a single image captured using the Sony A7RIV and Sony 24mm F1.4 GM lens, shot at F1.4, 15 seconds, ISO 800. The second image is a stack of 10 of the single images, tracked with the MSM, and combined using Starry Sky Stacker.
(Or compare them with this slider view.)
It’s obvious how many more objects become visible through stacking. I could have used longer exposures here. A rule of thumb is to avoid exposures longer than a few minutes each, due to noise that accumulates as the sensor heats up. That’s one reason all the really detailed astrophotography images you see are created with stacks.
Should You Buy One?
Over all, the cost, size, and weight of the MSM Star Tracker are all very favorable compared to more sophisticated star trackers. I didn’t backpack with my MSM, but I would consider taking it along on future trips, whereas it’s unlikely I would do that with a larger system.
The MSM Star Tracker is a great option for beginners who want to take their astrophotography beyond what’s possible without a tracker. It is apparently also popular with more serious astrophotographers, too, who want to have a lightweight, compact tracker with them at times when carrying a heavier alternative is not an option. For example, MSM has a few reviews from experts like Alyn Wallace, who also collaborated with them.
If you’re trying to create an amazing Andromeda Galaxy image, you’ll quickly graduate to one of the more sophisticated devices, but if you’re just trying to improve the sky in your astro-landscape photos, the MSM may be all you ever need.
Practice setting it up and using it beforehand. Then, make sure you actually pack all the pieces! I forgot the 3/8" to 3/8" screw with the stopper in the middle, shown in the following (blurry) image. I found the 3/8" “all thread” shown bottom right at a True Value Hardware store in Elko Nevada. (This is why I only had one night to test the MSM.) This replacement screw worked well enough, but it would not stay tight for long without the middle stopper.
Putting the system together takes some practice, as does “good-enough” alignment. The MSM comes with a zippered pouch, which is actually large enough to hold the tracker and a Z or V Platform. Keep the instructions in the pouch. They’ll help you set up your gear correctly in the field and remind you which obscure buttons you press to do tracking. These buttons are unintuitive, although simple enough to learn.
About the Z and V Platforms
The Z and V Platforms are lightweight, compact, yet sturdy options for positioning components where you need them, as shown above. Even if you don’t care about a star tracker, these are worth investigating!
In the setup above, I used the Z Platform to position the tracker. However, note that it might be difficult to get a shot near the Southern horizon with the ball head pointed North like it is. I could put a V Platform between the tracker and this head to turn the ball head more vertically. Using a Z or V Platform by itself would eliminate the ball head, but with less flexibility. I would definitely consider this option if I had a heavier lens on the camera, as the MSM Star Tracker isn’t designed for heavy loads, such as long lenses.
Comparing the Z and V platforms, the Z gives you more flexibility, but it is slightly heavier, and thicker when folded. Note that I don’t really need a Z configuration in the setup shown above. Hence, the V platform would have worked just fine, saving me a few ounces, especially when backpacking.
The knobs tighten down easily and hold a lot of weight. The knob “paddles” can get in the way at times, say for example when you need to tighten a knob further, but it’s hitting something else. Fortunately, these paddles fit over a hex head, where you can pull them out enough to rotate them to a better position without loosening anything.
Besides this astrophotography application, both versions could be used as a super lightweight tripod head, if you can level the legs. See examples on their website.
An alternative for attaching the tracker to a tripod is a wedge. More expensive trackers typically use one. I bought the MSM wedge, but didn’t take it on the trip. It’s reasonably well made, but my copy leaks a little of the lubrication oil used internally. Keeping this oil off my hands and my camera would be difficult. If you like the idea of a wedge, consider other brands.
The MSM Star Tracker is a great way to add star tracking to your arsenal. It is cheaper, lighter and more compact than the more full-featured alternatives. Hence, it’s a grea option for beginners or experienced astrophotographers who sometimes need to benefits of a smaller, lighter option.
I’ll definitely take this kit with me on future astrophotography trips and possibly even when I’m backpacking.