Stephen Bay's Photography Blog

Equipment for Tracked Panoramas of the Night Sky

Probably the most technically difficult shot to achieve in landscape astrophotography is a tracked panorama. But if you can successfully pull it off, it will yield the ultimate in image quality. I’ve done a few when conditions allowed (i.e. I had extra time for setup and I was able to carry of all the required gear) and thought I would share my equipment setup:

Equipment for tracked panoramas

The key is using the ballhead to provide a level platform for the panorama. As the star tracker rotates during the night, you will have to keep adjusting the ballhead clamp to remain level. Usually I can take 2-3 shots before the clamp rotates enough to become unlevel. I readjust by using the panning base of the ballhead to reverse the rotation of the tracker.

On top of the ballhead sits a Nodal Ninja indexed rotator. The rotator does exactly what the name implies, it rotates by a set amount of degrees. I have the RD-10 which has click stop detents for 5, 7.5, 10, 15, 18, 30, 36, 45, 60, and 90 degrees. Having click stops is very convenient because you can advance to the next frame in the pano without checking the viewfinder for the amount of overlap. I can also do multi-row panos and simply count the number of shots to tell me when I’ve finished the row.

Above the rotator sits a tilt head. The tilt head has two purposes: (1) it lets you shoot a panorama without having the horizon centered in the middle of the frame and (2) it lets you do multi-row panos by adjusting the tilt. My tilt head is a Desmond DMH-01 that I purchased for about $50 (with a clamp) off Amazon.

When doing Milky Way panos I do not use a nodal slide. I find that it’s not necessary for the compositions I typically shoot. A nodal slide is only necessary when there are close objects in the frame that would have parallax error AND the object with parallax falls across a stitching seam in the panorama AND your stitching software cannot recover the errors.

I also use my rotator and tilt-head by themselves for doing regular, non-tracked, panoramas of the night sky.

This setup is a bit unstable. You do not want to leave it unattended and if you wait too long before releveling the ballhead clamp, the setup will become unbalanced and may topple over. Using a counterweight would increase stability but I don’t want to carry the extra weight in the field so I just watch my setup closely.

As a final comment, I don’t recommend attempting a tracked panorama until you are comfortable with star trackers and creating (non-tracked) panoramas.