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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

MSM 2-in-1 Star Tracker Review

"Head on Collision with the Milky Way" ~ a tracked and blended exposure, taken on a lonely road near Buhl, Idaho. The sky portion is a two-minute exposure, tracked with the MOVE-SHOOT-MOVE 2-in-1 Star Tracker. The highway was a separate, blended exposure taken during the morning twilight. The car headlights were one of three lucky occurrences that happened near 4:00 that morning!

MOVE-SHOOT-MOVE is a compact star tracker that also doubles as a time-lapse rotator. I have friends who have bought star trackers and have never used them to take a photo, because they were too complicated to set up! And these are intelligent people. The Move-Shoot-Move is the most compact and easy to set up star tracker I have ever used. From the time I placed it on my tripod to finished alignment was only about two minutes, and within a couple more minutes I was shooting tracked images of the stars. Now I discover it can do time-lapse movements as well! That will be my next outing—however this review will be mainly about its star tracking features.



The MSM Tracker/Rotator is only 3.875 x 3.125 x 1.375 inches (9.84 x 7.94 x 3.49 cm). Weight is only 1.01 pounds (450 g). It's simple 2-button design controls Northern and Southern Hemisphere rotations, full and 1/2 tracking speeds, and four choices of time-lapse movement speeds. Power is supplied by an internal lithium-ion battery that is non-interchangeable, but is rechargeable via a supplied USB cable. Although they claim over 5 hours of runtime, I was only able to get a little over of 2 hours of use during the colder winter months (before a blinking red light indicated the battery was getting low), which is quite typical of li-ion batteries under cold conditions.

Limitations: The MSM has a maximum load capacity of 6.6 pounds (3 kg), which compares to the popular iOptron SkyTracker Pro and my first tracker, the Vixen Polarie Star Tracker. If you need a tracker that can carry heavier loads and has more available counter balance accessories, I'd recommend the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, with its 11 pound payload capacity—however, be prepared for a more intimidating set up (my first experience took me over half an hour).



Here's my personal set-up, using the MSM 2-in1 Tracker/Rotator. I used my own MeFoto ballhead, but MSM's basic "Starter Kit" comes with a similar ballhead (actually better quality than my MeFoto Q1) and a laser Star Pointer for $310.00 (current sale price is $239.98). Although you may already have a ballhead lying around like I did, I strongly recommend going with the "Starter Kit" option because these orders are shipped from a U.S. warehouse, and only take about 4 days to get to most continental U.S. locations. Other kit options ship directly from the factory in China and my first order took over two weeks to arrive to my Utah address.



My same set-up viewed from a different angle. The green laser Star Pointer (included with the "Starter Kit") attaches to the MSM unit via a nylon thumb screw and the laser slides into the laser holder, which is secured by another nylon thumb screw. The tripod ballhead is released and the MSM, with the attached laser, are then pointed at Polaris (the North Star), which properly aligns the system (often in less than 30 seconds)! The camera is then attached to the MSM's ballhead via its quick release and pointed towards the Milky Way or a star constellation. The whole process only takes a few minutes.



The green laser Star Pointer makes alignment a quick and uncomplicated process. I found the alignment accuracy to be very good when using any wide angle lens, and even accurate for a normal 50mm lens. My 85mm started to show slight star movement on exposures over 3 minutes, so I'd recommend MSM's optional Polar Scope ($79.98) when using telephoto lenses.

Dim laser beam problem: The Star Pointer comes with a rechargeable li-ion battery and USB charger. I found the brightness of the green laser beam diminished significantly on cold nights. However, by removing the li-ion battery and warming it in my hand or pocket for just a few minutes brought the brightness back to normal strength.

If you live in Australia, I'd suggest you order with the Polar Scope option (Basic Kit A), because laser pointers are not allowed in your country. In fact, anyone living in the Southern Hemisphere might want to use this option. If you travel a lot, you may wish to get both the Star Pointer and the Polar Scope (Basic Kit C).



Comparing Quality: Here's an enlargement from the top image, showing the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex area. I'm comparing the same area exposed with the tracker off, using a 30-second exposure (click to enlarge for detail). Note how the longer, tracked exposure allows for lower ISO settings, reducing noise and improving detail. Even longer tracked exposures will allow one to stop down the aperture to also reduce lens aberrations. (This 24mm f/1.4 lens gets about a 65% reduction in chromatic and coma aberration when stopped down to f/2.8. At f/4.0, it would lose about 85% of its coma and chromatic problems.)



In this 200% enlargement comparison, you can see that even at 15 seconds, there is some star movement, although it probably wouldn't be too noticeable until one made a print larger than 16x20 inches. What is very noticeable, even in smaller prints, is the huge increase in the number of stars that tracking picks up, and the increase in tonal range (bit-depth) due to the lower ISO's and the light gathering power that a tracker allows your sensor to capture.

How does tracking compare with stacking? I often refer to stacking as the "poor man's answer to tracking." Quickly shooting about 7 to 15 exposures to stack later (with Starry Landscape Stacker or Sequator) will significantly reduce your digital noise, but it won't increase the detail (including the number of smaller stars you'll pick up) and tonal range nearly as much as tracking will.

Orion's Belt and the Orion Nebula ~ a 2 minute exposure without and with tracking (using an 85mm lens).

Pros & Cons: I love the MSM's simple, modular design and its ability to add accessories when needed. I use the laser Star Pointer for most of my tracked shots, and I rarely need the accuracy of the Polar Scope—but it's nice to have it when needed. Ever since I got this tracker, I've been shooting a lot more tracked shot, because it's much easier to set up than any tracker I've ever used. I can't wait wait to start using the time-lapse movement features! My only con is its 6.6 pounds limitation on load capacity, which has never been a limitation for the equipment I use, but might be for some who would want to use a big telephoto lens.

In Conclusion: I think Chris Cook, a MSM owner from Sydney, Australia summed it up best: "The biggest difference I’ve found is the colours which are brought out with longer exposures. A stack of 10 or more photos at 3200 or 6400 [ISO] at 10-15 secs [each] looks great; but, when compared to a single shot at 640 [ISO] for 150 secs, there is no comparison. The star colours are amazing and the nebula are much more noticeable."

Time-lapse Movement Feature: The MSM is a 2-in-1 product that also has four movement speeds to its rotator. This allows for several time-lapse options. MSM offers several tutorials on this, including YouTube videos.

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