So you’ve dabbled in Astrophotography with your DSLR camera somewhat; maybe you’ve shot some star trails or some short 30-second night-time landscape shots. Now you want to move to the next level and take long exposures of stellar objects but you are put off by the cost and the complication.
Do you really need to lug around a large telescope and telescope mount? Are you confused about polar alignment?
The Vixen Polarie star tracker removes all of that intimidation and a lot of the cost (though not all of it!) and allows even a first-timer to be setup and running in a matter of minutes.
Vixen Polarie Review Plus Unboxing & Setup
Unboxing The Vixen Polarie
The only things you will find inside the box are the Polarie itself and the instruction manual. Any “accessories” that the Polarie has are built right into the unit such as the compass and the latitude meter/scale. The 27-page manual is detailed and gives you instructions for northern and southern hemisphere alignment.
Batteries are not included but you can use any type of AA battery including 1.2v rechargeables. I was able to get around 4 hours of tracking time from a couple of Sanyo Eneloop batteries. Alkalines may not last as long. You can also use an external 5v power supply (like this) with a USB mini-B plug to power it.
Setting Up The Vixen Polarie For Astrophotography
Please see my Astrophotography Guide (page 3) to see all the pieces of equipment you need in addition to the Polarie and your camera. Vixen also sells a kit with all of this stuff that I will talk about in the Accessories section of this review.
The Polarie manual provides clear instructions for alignment. Alignment is easiest in the Northern hemisphere since the bright star Polaris is extremely close to the celestial pole. In the southern hemisphere you have to do a little more searching since the star closest to that celestial pole is quite dim.
Once you do it a couple of times it will become second nature though. When aligning I like to first put my eye very close to the polar sight hole to get Polaris in view. Then I back away a couple of feet so the field of view through the hole is much smaller, then I center Polaris and I am aligned. The whole process usually takes me about a minute. If you accidentally bump your setup or knock a tripod leg with your foot you will want to check your alignment again.
You won’t be using super long telephoto lenses on this anyway since the Polarie’s rated weight capacity is only 4.4lbs (a typical DSLR weighs 1 – 2 pounds leaving you a good amount of room for a lens – even heavier lenses like a 400mm telephoto zoom are 3lbs or less).
The Polarie has a Solar tracking mode and since you will always be taking fast exposures of the sun the only time you’d really want to track it is during an eclipse so you could maybe take a long series of exposures to show the different phases. In this case you can get rough alignment by using the compass and the latitude meter.
If you were in the northern hemisphere you would aim your Polarie North with the aid of the compass, then tilt it to your latitude using the little meter on the side of the Polarie. This should be accurate enough to keep it in the viewfinder for a long period of time.
Once you are aligned, make sure you have batteries or a power source plugged in and then you turn the knob to the mode you want. There are 5 modes:
- Setup: This just illuminates the latitude meter if you wanted to use it in the dark
- Normal tracking: This is what you will normally use to track the stars, it turns at the sidereal rate.
- Half-speed tracking: This is designed for wide field landscape shots. Since tracking will blur the landscape as the camera moves, this provides a compromise between lack of star trails and landscape blurring.
- Lunar tracking: The moon moves at a different speed across the sky. You won’t be taking any long exposures but this will help keep it centered in your view longer.
- Solar tracking: Same deal at the lunar tracking.
The Vixen Polarie in Action
The best thing about the Polarie is its portability. You don’t need a big clunky setup. You don’t have to be afraid of moving everything to get a different view – it’s light and quick to get going. Throw a spare pair of AA batteries in your pocket and you are set for the whole night.
When aligning it through the polar sight hole, you can reliably get shots of up to 5 minutes at 100mm focal length, and upwards of 15 minutes for wide-angle shots. Using the polar scope you could triple those numbers easily. The shot below was taken at 105mm for 5 minutes and is a close to 100% crop. The stars are still quite round and you can easily differentiate the very faint stars.
The biggest downside to the Polarie is probably that it is only rated to hold 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms). You must take into account your ball head, camera, and lens and not exceed this weight. Using anything heavier could possibly damage the motor.
A typical camera weighs 1-2 pounds, a quality ball-head can also weight up to 1 pound, leaving you with 1-2.5 pounds for your lens. This means any “kit lens” that comes with a DSLR will work, as well as other popular types like 70-300mm zooms.
Heavy lenses that require their own tripod mount are not suited for the Polarie. In those cases you would be better suited to the more expensive Astrotrac which can carry a lot of weight.
Physically the Polarie is made of metal and feels heavy and well-built. When it’s tracking it is virtually silent. You need to put your ear right up to it to hear the gear turning. Below is a selection of a few pictures taken with the Polarie.
- Lightweight, portable
- Competitively priced compared to competition like Astrotrac
- Runs with only 2 AA batteries
- It tracks beautifully
- Can only hold a 4.4 pound (2 kilogram) payload
- Would be nice if the tripod socket and ball head mount screw were 3/8″ instead of 1/4″ for more stability.
- Optional polar scope is expensive.
- No battery meter
The Polarie fills a niche – it’s truly the only device of its kind. An ultra-portable DSLR tracking platform. Others like the Astrotrac are not as portable and not as user-friendly.
On the other hand if you want to expand in the future to more expensive and heavy lenses or even use short-tube telescopes, the Astrotrac is a better buy. If you just want to take star pictures with your DSLR and your regular lenses, I highly recommend the Vixen Polarie.
Accessories For The Vixen Polarie
In addition to the Polarie itself (which currently goes for $399 at Amazon), there are some optional accessories available to help you get more precise alignment.
The Polarie Polar Scope
As discussed in the Setup section of this article, the polar scope allows for more precise alignment. You set your location (offset of the meridian) plus your time and date, then place the scope into the Polarie then look through the scope and the reticule will tell you where to center Polaris.
The celestial pole actually changes as time goes on (relative to Polaris) and the scope compensates for this and provides a scale to accurately align up until the year 2025.
The Polarie Polar Meter
This is a brand new accessory for the Polarie. If you were wondering what that flash hotshoe mount was
for on top of the Polarie, now you know. It essentially has 3 things on it – a bubble level, a compass and a latitude scale. The Polarie itself already has two of these but the compass is handheld.
This is just meant to make it more convenient I suppose. It costs around $59 which is a pretty fair price in my opinion for the amount of value it delivers.
The Polarie Kit
If you are interested in getting a Polarie but do not have a tripod, tripod head and ball head mount yet, then this kit may be for you. It includes everything you need to get going besides your camera of course.
I don’t have any experience with the kit so I can’t speak to the quality of the tripod and head.
Hopefully this Vixen Polarie review has helped with your journey for taking better Milky Way and Astrophotography. You can check out our comprehensive guide here on how too setup, capture and edit Milky Way photos.