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.
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.
– Aperture f/2.8
– 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:
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:
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.
As always, any feedback is welcome. Happy New Year!