A review of the Vixen Polarie, a camera for astronomy enthusiasts.

Review: Vixen Polarie Camera Tracker

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.

Vixen Polarie
The Vixen Polarie mounted on a tripod with a DSLR camera and ready for action. (Terence Dickinson)
Vixen Polarie
The central hole accommodates a user-supplied ball-and-socket camera mount or an optional polar scope. (Terence Dickinson)

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).

Polarie features
The Polarie is rich with features. (1) A simple lensless Polaris sighting hole allows accurate enough alignment for exposures of up to about 4 minutes with wide-angle lenses shorter than 30mm. (An optional polar scope increases alignment accuracy.) (2) Small tilt meter acts as a latitude gauge to get you close. (3) Smooth but sure click stops, plus red glow, indicate (clockwise from OFF position) lunar, solar and stel­lar driving rates, as well as “starscape” mode and illumination of tilt meter. (4) Underneath the screw-off centre cap is a compass for locating north at an unfamiliar site. (Terence Dickinson)

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.

Cygnus test image with Polarie
Our first test photo with the Polarie is this 2-minute exposure of the Cygnus Milky Way. Camera settings at ISO 2000 with a 30mm lens at f/2.5 reveal thousands of stars. Blue cast at bottom is the approaching dawn. (Terence Dickinson)

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.