With the advent of better camera sensors and high-quality but affordable fast lenses, astro photography is more accessible than ever. No wonder milky way and other types of night sky images have grown in popularity over the past few years.
Over the course of my journey with Fujifilm X cameras, I have found a very good, yet affordable solution for astro photography. Here’s my astro photography kit:
Fujifilm X-E1 – This is an older Fuji X body, but still very capable. It has the excellent Fuji X-Trans sensor with a decent Electronic Viewfinder. You can also use a old-school threaded cable release or one that plugs in to the input jack. Best thing is, you can probably get an X-E1 for around $200 or less nowadays. In my opinion, the simplicity of the X-E1 is a great match for my recommended lens, which is the…
Samyang 12mm f/2.0 – This is a gem of a lens which I always rave about. Sharp, fast, and affordable, this lens is great for astro photography, landscapes, and many other applications. You can pick one up new for around $320 USD or even less used.
So for around $500 USD or less, you can have a very capable astro photography camera and lens combination.
Of course, there is some other gear you will need to consider when doing astro photography.
Tripod – Any stable tripod would do, as long exposures are necessary for astro photography. I recommend a small travel tripod such as the MeFoto Backpacker or the Sirui T-005KX, or even the Joby Gorillapod Focus for when you have to get down really low to include the foreground elements.
Remote/cable release – This gives you more control over the long exposure, as well as helps avoid shake. The X-E1 can use a remote that plugs into the mic jack or an old school mechanical cable release.
Graduated neutral density filter – This is a more advanced technique and totally optional. In some areas, you may still have light pollution visible in the frame. Mounting a graduated filter upside-down may reduce the influence of the lights and help balance out the exposure.
I used the upside-down GND technique in this shot, which was taken on a university campus.
Milky Way Photography Tips
- Proper gear. To capture the whole milky way, you will need a fast, wide lens and a camera with good high ISO performance. Lenses from 10mm to 24mm focal lengths with an aperture of 1.4 to 2.8 would work very well. You will also need a sturdy tripod, as a long exposure will be necessary. A cable release is also helpful.
- Location. The farther away you are from city lights, the better. Do your research and scout a location that will have minimal light pollution. This usually involves a bit of travel outside of big cities. Also choose a location that will give you a nice foreground, such as trees, rock formations, or an old house. Incorporating foreground elements make your photos much more interesting than photographing just the sky.
- Weather conditions and moon phase. To more easily photograph the milky way, you will need clear skies and no moonlight. Take note of the next New Moon phase as well as the weather forecast and make your plans accordingly.
- Time and direction. Smartphone apps are the easiest way to check what time the milky way (or more specifically, the ‘galactic core’), will be visible and what direction to point your camera. My favorite app is called Sky Safari. It tells you where the milky way will be and at what time, even weeks or months ahead of time. It also uses your phone’s GPS and gyroscope to let you point the phone at the sky to find the position. There are many apps that do this.
- Exposure time. To find the right exposure for your shot, use the 500 rule. Simply divide your lens focal length by 500 to get the best shutter speed for crisp, sharp stars. For example, for my 18mm lens, 500/18 = 27.77 seconds. So I need to use a shutter speed of 27 seconds or shorter to get sharper stars. Any longer than this shutter speed and you will start to record the star movement and get trails/blur. Of course, you will also adjust ISO and aperture according to this shutter speed.
- Typical settings. All cameras and lenses are different, but these are my typical settings: ISO 3200, f/2.0, 27 seconds. Use these settings only as a starting point and adjust according to your gear and needs.
I’m sure there are many more tips and tricks that can be added, but these should help point you in the right direction. As always, experience is the best teacher and there’s nothing like learning from doing. So if you are so inclined, I definitely encourage you to get out there and photograph the night sky!
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