Chasing the Milky Way – Star Photography for Fuji X Shooters

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After the above image of the Milky Way over Crater Lake in Oregon was featured recently by Fuji X Magazine, I received a number of email enquiries on how to capture these type of pictures. I decided to write a quick star photography guide specifically aimed at fellow Fuji X shooters. This type of photography appears very complex and difficult but once you actually work through the process a couple of times it becomes fairly easy…provided a few simple guidelines are followed. A successful Milky Way photo requires the right equipment, a bit of research and a sprinkle of luck from Mother Nature.

1) Choose Your Weapon 

You will need a camera with excellent high iso performance (any of the Fuji X interchangeable lens bodies will do a great job).

Lens choice is the key to great star pictures. You will need a fast, wide-angle lens with excellent corner to corner performance. By fast and wide, I mean with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 and a focal length no greater than ~16mm (APSC format). Lens choice for astrophotography is governed by the 500 rule: This indicates how long your exposure time can be before the motion of the stars becomes visible in your picture and you get star trails rather than sharp points of light. The wider the field of view of the lens, the less visible star motion becomes, so wider lenses allow a longer exposure time. By using a very wide aperture of f/2.8 or greater, we are maximising the amount of light captured by the lens, which lets us use a lower ISO value.

The 500 rule works as follows (for cameras with APSC sensors):

Max Exposure Time(sec) = 500 / [Focal Length(mm) x 1.5].

For the Fuji 14mm f/2.8 lens, this works out as 500 / (14×1.5) = 23.8 seconds which is just about enough to get a decent Milky Way shot at 3200-6400ISO. The Fuji 10-24mm f/4 gives us a max exposure time of 33sec (at 10mm) but we give up one stop of light-gathering ability and would need to use a higher ISO value to compensate. Both Samyang and Zeiss also offer Fuji-compatible, fast, wide-angle lenses for different budgets. I’ve been getting nice results with the Fuji 14mm but I can’t wait to try the new 16mm f/1.4 which is two stops faster.

Finally, you will need a tripod and a head-torch.

2) Choose a Location and a Time

In order for the Milky Way to be visible, we need a clear night with no moon in a remote location with minimal light pollution (well away from city streetlights). Just like any other photograph, we also need to figure out a composition: a vantage point to capture the stars in combination with some foreground interest. This might be a land or seascape, or some kind of close-range object we can illuminate with a torch (light painting) during the exposure. Remember that the Milky Way will only appear in certain parts of the sky and this will change based on time of year, just like the sun and moon.

There are loads of helpful apps to assist with location and timing but I use these three:

The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) is a free phone app that gives you the sunrise/set and moonrise/set time for any given location. For star photography, you need to wait until at least 2hrs after sunset (and be finished by 2hrs before sunrise) to ensure the sky is truly dark. Any moonlight is bad news, so wait until the moon has set.

Stellarium is a fantastic free program for Windows or Mac. You enter a location/time and the program will display a 360deg interactive sky map showing where each star, planet and the Milky Way will appear and their progress across the sky throughout the night.

Blue Marble Navigator Dark Sky Map shows light pollution levels. The unsightly orange glow of street lights can ruin your star photos.

Wreck of the Peter Iredale, 14mm, f/2.8, 20sec, ISO3200
Stellarium
Stellarium map showing the sky at same time, location and direction as above Peter Iredale Shipwreck photo. Note that Jupiter, Betelguese and Orion’s belt are all clearly visible

3) Pre-Shoot Preparation

After you’ve selected the location and time for your composition, some further homework is required to maximise your chances of getting the best shot. Firstly, check the weather – any cloud cover or fog will ruin your picture and you need to be adequately equipped if it’s going to be very cold. Secondly think about access to the location – do you need to hike there? when do you need to leave to be there on time? can you scout the location in daylight beforehand? Can you persuade someone to come with you? Remember you will be spending several hours in a remote location in pitch darkness.

Next, you need to set up the camera as best you can prior to heading out. These are my starting settings:

– X-Pro1 or X-T1 with 14mm f/2.8 lens (remove any lens filters).

– Manual focus with lens set to infinity. With the 14mm lens, pull back the clutch to engage manual focus, then twist the focus ring all the way to the right where it stops at the infinity mark.

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14mm with focus manually set to infinity

– Aperture f/2.8

– ISO6400

– Bulb Mode (with a cable release) so I can manually control the exposure time.

– Long Exposure Noise Reduction switched off.

– Check your batteries and SD card. Bring spares.

4) Getting the Shot

Getting to the location early and setting up the shot in daylight is ideal but remember that you will need to wait until at least two hours after sunset to get a properly dark sky and usually more if you need to wait on the moon setting or the Milky Way rising, so it’s not always practical. If you have to set up the shot in darkness, the first thing you will notice is that you can’t see a thing through your EVF or OVF – it will be far too dark! This means you need to approximate your composition and use trial and error to check the camera position, exposure and focus.

– Start off by doing a test shot at f/2.8, 25sec and ISO6400 to get your composition finalised.

– Next check your focus in the test shot by zooming in on the stars in the rear LCD. With the lens set manually to infinity, the stars should be in sharp focus. If the shot is blurred, check your lens settings and check your tripod is secure.

– Check exposure by adjusting ISO down from ISO6400 to ISO5000 to ISO3200. It is extremely difficult to accurately check star exposures using the rear LCD and histogram, so just take plenty of shots at different ISO settings to be sure you get one on target. Don’t mess around too much with the aperture and exposure time – you should have already figured out the optimum settings for these before the shoot.

– If you have foreground elements close to the camera (less than 15m), I would use focus bracketing to ensure you get one frame with the foreground in focus and one frame with the background (the stars) in focus and you can combine the two images in photoshop. Start with the lens at infinity and manually tweak it back to the 3m setting in small steps, taking a picture each time.

– If you are using light painting to illuminate the foreground, take plenty of shots, experimenting with the torch movement.

– If you are taking a distant landscape, you will probably need to take two exposures, one for the stars and one for the ground. The ground exposure will need a much longer time than the stars (probably 5-10mins) if it is very dark. Both exposures can be blended into a single image in photoshop later. The Crater Lake shot above was done using this technique.

– At regular intervals, check all your settings. It is very easy to press a button by mistake in the dark.

5) Post Processing

If all that went to plan, you should come home with something like this:

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OOC JPEG of Milky Way shot at abandoned farm near Kent, Oregon. 14mm, f/2.8, 25sec, ISO5000. The windmill, foreground and buildings were light painted with a torch during the exposure.

The final image needs a bit of work in Lightroom – the main adjustment I make is to reduce the white balance slightly to make the sky more blue/purple. I also use gradient filters to apply separate adjustments to the sky and the ground. In this case, I added a fair bit of contrast into the sky, along with pushing up the Highlights/Whites to brighten the stars without affecting the dark areas of the sky. For the ground, I pushed up the exposure by +1 stop and added some noise reduction. I also added a global curves adjustment to increase the overall contrast. Shoot in Raw to allow for maximum post-processing latitude.

Then we’re done:

Final image after editing in Lightroom.

For more detailed information, I highly recommend Dave Morrow’s tutorials – he is a master of the art and it was his work that inspired me to go out and try to catch the Milky Way in the first place.

Lonelyspeck is also a great resource – they even have a blog post on the best Fuji X lenses for astrophotography.

As always, any feedback is welcome. Happy New Year!

 

34 thoughts on “Chasing the Milky Way – Star Photography for Fuji X Shooters

    1. Hi Pinoy. In my experience, Long Exposure Noise only starts to be visible on exposures >8mins and even then, it’s not too bad until `15mins. However, if you have Long Exposure NR enabled, it kicks in from 30sec where it really isn’t required. Also, the camera takes two exposures: one for your photo and one with the shutter closed to measure the sensor noise at your exposure time, which it then subtracts from your image file, so your time per shot doubles if you have Long Exposure NR turned on.

      1. Thank you very, very much. This is valuable information, especially for a beginner astrophotographer like me! 🙂

  1. Great article, I learned a lot will be trying this with my Fuji, rather than the Canon soon. I have re-blogged to my own site, hope that is ok, if not let me know and I will remove.

    1. Great article i really want to take some pics of the stars, i live in Thailand in the countryside so should be able to get some good shots… i will follow your post word for word.. need all the help i can get with my X-Pro1.. again thanks

  2. Light cloud cover and moving clouds or lower level fog can enhance the night photos at times. I wouldn’t avoid the night shot unless the sky was mostly covered and even then you can get good nightscapes with a moon out and through the clouds – especially with snow on the ground.

  3. Hi Ross – I enjoyed the astro article – I have an X100 and was curious what you think of the X-T1? I am thinking about buying an X-T1 or Sony A7ii but I am torn between APS-C or FF. How would your astro images look printed on a large scale, would a camera of greater resolution (Full Frame) be better? Cheers…

    1. Hi Roddy, the X-T1 is a huge step up from the original X100 (and the X-Pro). It does everything much faster and the EVF is fantastic. I still think I prefer the colours from my X-Pro though.

      The advantage of the Sony (over the X-T1) for astrophotography would not be resolution as much as light sensitivity. I haven’t used one but I believe the Sony can be used at very high ISO settings. However they don’t seem to offer the superb native lenses that Fuji offer.

  4. Thanks for this, I had read somewhere before that Fuji camera’s weren’t great at doing astrophotography but from your images they look great. I’m gonna give it a shot. Just curious, have you done any with the X-T1? I’m curious how well the app works for long exposures

    1. Hi there – I think most of these pics are from X-T1 except the ship wreck. I don’t use the remote app – I take the photos manually using a remote release and the timer in the LCD.

  5. Hi you stated that you were looking forward to trying the Fujifilm 16mm. Can I ask if you have done that now? I am undecided between the 16mm and 14 mm and would like to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks x

    1. Hi Fiona, I just got the 16mm but I haven’t tried it for stars yet. I’m in Mongolia at the minute looking for some dark,clear skies, so hopefully I can try it here! Initial reports on the 16mm don’t look good for star shots but I haven’t seen a proper test yet. Another option is the Samyang 12mm which is faster than the 14mm and almost as sharp. For a general wide angle (non star stuff), I would go with the 14mm – I think the 16mm is too big and front-heavy for the Fuji bodies.

      1. Ross hi thank you for taking the time to get back to me. I did look at the Samyang after reading your article but was put off with the comments on the lens being manual focus only, the infinity point not being accurate and the extra work required to get the shot right also I have read that it is a bit of a hit or a miss if you get a good lens or a poor one from Samyang. I am new to astrophotography and relatively new to photography and not sure if I could get these points right hence the reason I was looking at the Fujifilm 14mm or 16mm on my XE2.
        Many thanks for your advise.

        Fiona x

      2. I tried the 16mm – it’s not great. The field of view is too narrow for Milky Way shots (you need a big sweeping sky view) and it distorts the stars at the edges of the frame. I also tried the 12mm which is surprisingly good…although the manual focus is tricky. I would go with the Fuji 14mm…I regret selling mine for the 16mm!

  6. Hi Ross,

    Thanks for writing this up. The shots are inspiring and using this article I made a somewhat successful attempt with my new XT-10 and the kit lens 16-55 2.8 -4 @ 16, 2.8. It was fun and I plan to do more of it.

    I have a question on your calculation of the time though. I don’t understand why we need to divide the crop factor for the time. I was looking at the 500 rule chart here on shutter muse ( http://shuttermuse.com/resources/astrophotography-500-rule-chart/ ) and in the column for 1.5 crop 14mm lens it has 37 seconds whereas you’ve divided by 1.5 to come up with 23.8.

    Hope this makes sense, I’ve been doing photography on and off for a while but as a hobby and haven’t completely wrapped my head around the analog to digital quirks like this.

    Thank You
    Scott

    1. Hi Scott, the exposure time is dependent on the field of view of the lens. A crop sensor reduces the FOV (e.g. The 14mm is equivalent to 21mm on full frame), so the exposure time where star-trailing starts to occur is lower on a crop sensor. I get visible star trails at 30sec with the 14mm, so the website you quoted sounds like they made an error. Cheers, Ross.

  7. My camera (fuji xt-10) takes as long as the exposure to process the image after the shutter is closed. This means i get long blanks inbetween the trails. Any advice?

  8. If I only have the 10-24 f/4 what can I do to improve the images without increasing ISO too high and degrading the IQ?

    1. You can shoot at 10mm and the 1/500 rule means that you can use a longer shutter speed. 500 / (1.5 x 10) gives you 33sec of exposure time before you get star trails. This means you can reduce your iso slightly.

  9. Hey Ross,

    Great guide and thumbs up for mentioning the 500 rule! It’s possibly one of the most important things to remember when trying to get a sharp shot of the Milky Way.

  10. Great guide and excellent photos!
    anyway, would you mind to share how to setup kit lens xc16-50mm with fuji xt10 for astrophotography? I just have it and still learning to use it. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi there, glad you liked the article. Unfortunately, the XC16-50mm is not a good lens for astrophotography. The maximum aperture is too slow (f/3.5) so the lens can’t capture enough light to get a good image of the Milky Way. You could try using it at 16mm, f/3.5 ISO6400 for 30sec but I think the photo will be underexposed. If you increase the exposure time beyond 30sec, the stars will start to blur. Unfortunately, you need a wide angle lens with a very large maximum aperture (f/2.8 or wider) to get a good Milky Way photo…e.g. the Fuji 14mm f/2.8 or the Samyang/Rokkinon 12mm f/2.0. However, don’t let that stop you taking photos at night – the 16-50 would work fine for getting photos of star trails where you use much longer exposure times and don’t need a wide aperture. Try this tutorial for help with star trails: http://www.davemorrowphotography.com/2012/03/startrailsphotographytutorial.html

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