A Successful Evening of Astrophotography

June 18, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

I have tried astrophotography with both my Nikon DSLR and Fuji X systems a few times but have had results that are nothing special, mainly due to atmospherics, difficult Milky Way positions and above all, light pollution.  Trying to find a truly dark place on one of the 4 dark new moon days and with good weather can be a bit much to ask!  Looking at a Bortle scale (basically a darkness measurement) map representation of the UK is rather depressing, with virtually nowhere being truly dark, let alone anywhere even slightly close to urban developments.  I know from experience that darkness is on another level in the Australian Outback and US deserts to name but 2 awesomely dark places.

 

Last Tuesday I ventured out with a friend to do some shooting at Knowlton Church, a local and favoutrite location, which is just about far enough from the nearby towns to get a decent dark sky.  Using the Photo Pills app I had done my homework and noted that the Milky Way was to be high in the sky (50+ degrees) to the east with Galactic Centre toward the south and about 10 degrees above the horizon.  That is as good as its gets for avoiding the light pollution from a nearby fish farm to the west.  The Galactic Centre turned out to be rather lost in the light pollution from the Bournemouth/Poole conurbation but detail was good in the rest of the Milky Way.

 

Being mid summer it was not properly dark until well after 11pm and the Milky Way didn't really start to show its true splendour until around 1am.  Light pollution from nearby sources seemed to less have less impact than before, maybe due to atmospherics, maybe due to the turning off of some street lamps after a certain hour.  Whatever the reason, the light was not as ugly as I have seen on previous visits and its colours actually added something to the images in some cases.

 

I took both my D800 with the Nikon 14-24 lens and my Fuji X-T1 with the 8mm fisheye from Samyang.  I got some nice post-sunset shots with the D800, using its fantastic dynamic range to get retained highlights and shadows from single frames, by under exposing enough (1.33 stops) to retain highlights, then pushing the shadows in post.

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However, later on things turned very much the Fuji's way.  In the dark little ergonomic issues make a big difference.  On the Fuji I could see to compose an image either in the EVF or on the LCD.  It was too dark to see anything meaningful through the D800 using the OVF or LCD, making composition an experimental pain.  When doing manually-timed bulb exposures of 36 seconds, a clear timer was displayed on the Fuji's rear LCD and on the iPhone (using Triggertrap).  On the Nikon there was nothing so I had to resort to using a watch, which I couldn't see, or using the iPhone stop watch, which left me with a remote in one hand and a phone in the other.  The final thing which left me shooting with the Fuji was that the 14-24 lens was suffering badly from condensation to the point that I could not wipe it away fast enough.  It got really rather cold and the gear got soaked in condensation, but for some reason the little Samyang lens did not mist up.  I can hardly blame the Nikon for this misfortune though!

 

While the Nikon files were in some ways technically "better" than those from the Fuji, the differences at ISO 6400 were not enough to outweigh the other issues, mainly battling composition and dealing with the condensation.  I was not happy with most of the compositions I got from the Nikon as they were largely guesswork.  The Fuji was easy to use and created great files too.  Of course the 8mm lens is almost custom-made for capturing the wide arc of the Milky Way and the extra effective depth of field afforded by the APS sensor helps get a sharp image across the frame too; advantages to the Fuji which cannot be overlooked.  Silly little things like the timer and viewfinder/LCD problems are a wake-up call to the 2 giants of imaging, with their products lagging behind in innovation and features that affect real photography situations.

 

Here is one of only a few keepers from the Nikon.

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Astro is one of the view situations where I tend to shoot RAW files on Fuji as they do give better results in these very dark conditions than the jpg files.  Light casts are easier to deal with and the Raw files take the clarity and sharpening pushes that are needed to extract the best star detail.  To be honest, the jpg files are good, but they are a bit softer in detail and less malleable for this challenging subject.

 

Here are some from the Fuji.

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