A while ago I was looking at features on various cameras and found out some Pentax cameras have a feature called Astro tracer. The Astro tracer feature is built in star tracking for long exposure Astro photography using the in body 5 axis stabilisation and sensor shift technology, I was super keen to try it out so contacted Pentax Australia to see if I could organise test.
Pentax sent me their top model, the full frame Pentax K-1 along with the Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 (Sigma is distributed by the same company here in Australia). Although this review is specifically about the astro tracer feature I will mention some of the great features the k-1 has on offer, as it is such an amazing camera, especially for Night and Astro photography. I will not go through the specs but you can find them here, Pentax K1 I will stick to features I used and feel are useful to Night and Astro photography, there are many more tricks up this cameras sleeve.
My first thoughts on the camera was wow this is a chunky camera, I mean this in a good way. It’s a big camera that feels rock solid, really well built, it feels and looks like a professional tool and also handles like one, It feels comfortable to use and it’s really easy and intuitive to navigate through it’s menus. It just looks and feels great!
Night photography features,
Built in lighting, the k1 has small LED lights built in to its body to help you see in the dark, these are easily operated with a push of a button and you are able to set the power. These LED’s are located in behind the live view screen to illuminate the buttons on the cameras body, under the Pentax logo to illuminate the lens mount and in the SD card slots to illuminate the slots, I can’t think of any other camera on the market that has a feature like this.
The camera has a really well implemented articulating LCD screen, the design is solid and in line with the build quality of the K1. It is also quite different to any other design I have seen, it has four struts that slide and twist and allow you to use the screen at almost any angle you wish. Tilting screens were really once a feature I didn’t think were very useful but after using them on my Fuji cameras I think they are invaluable, especially when getting cameras down low for a different angle or to just get it down low on a tripod for a more solid base in windy conditions without having to kneel. Honestly the Pentax’s articulating screen is one of the best out there for ease of use and build quality.
The K1 has a built in intervelometer, great for shooting time lapses or trying to capture meteors or Aurora, just set the camera up to shoot at intervals and kick back and enjoy the stars, wish my canon had this feature, it works well on the K1. The K1 also has modes such as Interval composite, where it takes images at intervals and composites it into a single image. Interval movie record where it takes images at intervals and saves them as a video file. Star stream that takes still images at intervals and merges them into a file. Unfortunately I only used these modes very briefly so can not really comment on them but theres so much these modes can do, I would of loved to have the camera longer to test these modes properly for this review, maybe next time?
Dimmable LCD screen, the screen can be set to different brightness levels.
Electronic level for helping get straight horizons at night.
Image quality, low noise and dynamic range. The image quality from the K1 is superb, high iso noise is really well controlled and it has one of the highest dynamic ranges available in any camera on the market, when it comes to image quality and sensor performance, it’s excellent, the K1 is one of the best performing cameras out there. This in itself makes the k1 a great option for night photography well any photography really. It really made my canon 6d look bad and the detail I could pull from shadow at night was amazing, to think this camera sells for approx $2500 in Australia!!!
LED lights in behind the articulated Live view screen that helps illuminate the buttons on the back of the camera. Take a look at the design of the live views articulation, it works really well and allows you to move the screen in so many directions, it is also very much in line with the rest of the camera in being a really solid robust design.
The small LED lighting the lens mount such a handy feature at night.
LED lights lighting the dual SD card slots, another great feature for night photographers.
Above, Aurora Australis. Pentax K1, Sigma 18-35mm. 18mm, f2, 15seconds at iso 3200 – This shot was taken at iso 3200 and really shows very little noise, details are very crisp and sharp. In this shot I lifted the shadow detail to give some detail in the tree and foreground. I also took images with my Canon 6d on the same night within minutes of each other and the image from the k1 is so much cleaner especially in the shadows, this is really great performance.
The above image was taken at iso 1600 and was a little underexposed, it was my first time with the k1. I lifted shadow detail in the foreground and on the house and the file stood up very well, the other interesting thing is it showed the pink colour in the nebula above the house quite well without me needing to push it too hard, I did however darken the coal sack nebula (dark patch) to make it stand out a little.
So we have established the Pentax k1 is a great performer at night and has quite a few really useful features for night and Astro photographers but what about that astrotracer? It is a huge feature in this camera and currently I believe only Pentax has this technology in their cameras.
The astro tracer is a great feature but isn’t without flaw as you will see. It works by using the GPS and 5 axis stabilisation to move the sensor with the motion of the stars for your location, you can set tracking from 10 seconds to as long as 5 minutes.
Here are the basics of how to start the astro tracer feature, the full detailed instructions can all be found in the Pentax K1 manual, or here, definitely read the instructions.
- First you need to turn the in built GPS on.
- Select the Astro tracer feature.
- Perform precise calibration of the GPS.
- Set the exposure mode to B and set focus to MF.
- Set the desired settings.
- Adjust focus.
- Press the shutter, shooting begins.
I struggled to find good information on how to do the Precise Calibration and failed quite a few times before I found this video, the trick is to move the camera with a bit of intention, don’t be too slow. ALWAYS put the strap around your wrist so you do not drop the camera.
So how does the Astro tracer perform?
The following are example images mostly straight out of camera at 18mm and 35mm focal lengths at various exposure lengths. – Please note – the Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 lens is a crop body lens so the focal lengths are equivalent to approx 27mm and 52mm, yes the Pentax K1 can use crop and full frame lenses.
18mm iso1600, f2, 30sec – Stars are exceptionally sharp across the frame despite the fact we are breaking the 500/600 rule here. If you are unaware of the 500/600 rule check out my tutorial on Basic Nightsky Photography, link here.
18mm, iso 800, f2, 60 seconds – At the longer exposure of 60 seconds (breaking the 500/600 rule by a lot) there is a little bit of star trailing creeping in to the top right and bottom left corners, this is consistent with what I have seen in other reviews. But check out the detail in the milky way and how clean the image is noise wise because we can use iso 800 (yes this shot has had the slightest post processing with a curves adjustment, such a simple adjustment with a great result). At 60seconds this is quite usable, wow! It’s not as good as a dedicated EQ mount but this is virtually straight out of the K1 simply mounted on my standard Benro Travel Angel tripod.
18mm, f2, iso800, 90seconds – At 90 seconds we are seeing a bit more trailing in the stars in the top right and bottom left corners.
18mm, f2, iso800, 120 seconds – The trailing is becoming worse in the top right and bottom left corners. Looking at this I’d say at this focal length it’s starting to get too much trailing.
18mm, f2, iso800, 180seconds.
18mm, f2, 240 seconds
18mm, f2, iso800, 300 seconds
As you can see in the above examples the Astrotracer isn’t perfect and trailing gets worse as we use longer shutter speeds. This is very similar to what I have seen in others reviews. But having said that 60 seconds is very usable and you could do some great things stacking the files or just using the single file on its own using blending/composite techniques with a foreground image. As the camera is tracking the stars you are going to get movement in your foregrounds if you include them, so blending/composite techniques are really the only way around that if using the Astro tracer and really long shutter speeds. Note – I also use proper equitorial mounts for astro photography, with rough run and gun alignment 60-90 seconds is about as long as you can achieve reliably and I have shot lots of basic astrophotography with these shutter speeds so the K1 does quite well in my opinion.
35mm, f2, iso 3200, 30seconds – At 35mm (52mm equivalent) we are breaking the 500/600 rule by quite a lot yet we are getting nice sharp stars!
35mm, f2, iso1600, 60seconds – At 60 seconds we have also been able to drop the iso to 1600 and we are still getting nice sharp stars.
35mm, F2.8, iso 800, 120 seconds – At 120 seconds we are seeing some fuzziness and trailing across the top half of the image, not really usable.
35mm, f2.8, iso 800, 180 seconds – At 180 seconds we are seeing quite a bit of trailing and softness in various areas.
For the test at 35mm I didn’t bother to go any further than 180 seconds as I felt the results were very much indicating that 60 seconds would be the maximum I would personally use. All things considered 60 seconds straight out of camera with no equatorial mount is pretty good performance and is very useful.
If I was to use a camera and lens with a focal length of 35mm (on a crop sensor body) without the astro tracer function I would only be able to use a shutter speed of around 9 seconds using the 500 rule as a guide, in reality it would be less than that, it puts that 60 seconds in perspective, it is a huge difference in exposure time. Note – Remember I shot in crop mode as the lens dictated this, results using a the sensor of the k1 is likely to be quite different.
Real life use of the astro tracer.
Obviously we can use the astro tracer feature to capture single images of the night sky and we can also do this and composite/blend it with a foreground image taken from the exact same location, but I thought I’d show what can be achieved quite easily with the K1 using the astro tracer feature, multiple images, some stacking to reduce noise further in adobe photoshop and some post processing to pull out some details.
The following is a series of images that were used to create the very last image, all are taken with the these settings, 35mm, f2, iso1600, 60 seconds.
These images above were used to create the following image.
Above the final result from stacking multiple images.
This review is in no way an in-depth review of all the features the K1 has to offer, it has so much more to offer for Astro and Night photographers, and even more for other users, landscape photography is one that comes to mind where this camera would simply excel. It is also very limited to what I could shoot in the time I had with the camera and we also need to bare in mind I was using the Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 Art lens, a crop lens that did not allow me to use the full potential of the camera, yes that’s right I wasn’t using the Pentax K1 to its full potential.
I really liked the Pentax K1, it is built well, has some excellent features and produces stellar images, when it comes to image quality it is up there with the best, no arguing that. But this review was mainly to see how the Astro tracer functioned and hopefully provide some information for those that might be interested in Pentax cameras for this function, yes there are other Pentax models with the astro tracer too, it is not just limited to their top of the heap K1! So what did I find? what do I think?
The astro tracer is quite limited in use, I couldn’t use the longest shutter speeds available because of star trailing, but I really think this would vary for location and lens used, it would be a matter of more testing to work out what the cameras limitations are with different lenses. It is not really a substitute for an equatorial mount but at the same time is very capable and is out there on it’s own as a feature, respect to Pentax for adding this technology! I do however think with a bit of practice you could be taking interesting, really high quality wide field astro images using the Astro tracer.
I also think the K1 could be the perfect camera for those that like to blend/composite their wide field astro photography, you could shoot a foreground image without the astro tracer feature taking advantage of the excellent low noise capabilities of the K1’s sensor and then switch on the Astro tracer and take long exposure shots of the night sky, getting pin point stars and low noise images from using lower iso than possible without the feature, there are so many situations and possibilities you could use the strengths of the K1 and it’s astro tracer.
Would I own the Pentax K1 myself, definitely, If I wasn’t already invested in three systems. For what I photograph most, night sky, wide field astro, Milky-way, landscape etc the Pentax K1 has features that really set it apart from others and the image quality is just superb. I would love to spend more time with this camera shooting the night sky using the astro tracer, I’d love to try capturing nebula with some longer lenses and really testing the cameras capabilities, not to mention I’d love to use it’s interval features to capture star trails and time-lapse.
The K1 is a camera that genuinely interests me and has so much to offer. I’d really like to explore the capabilities more, so much so I will be asking Pentax for another loan for when the milky way central bulge becomes visible again here in Australia in a few months time. I’m really surprised the K1 isn’t much more popular amongst landscape and astro photographers.
I hope you have found the information in this review useful. When researching the Astro tracer feature and the Pentax K1 I found it hard to find much information so hopefully this review helps others that may be interested.
Your support is much appreciated, LIKING, SHARING, SUBSCRIBING, READING other posts on my website all go a long way in helping me organise these reviews/tutorials, so thanks for reading, thanks for sharing, thanks for your support, cheers Daniel.
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