On a journey to the Stars

If you have followed me, you know I have a passion for nocturnal landscapes and the Milky Way. I always tried to do my best with what I have, both from the photographic equipment and location point of view.

I live in Belgium, under one of the most light polluted skies in the World, and when I started with night photography I didn't want to invest on specific gear. Not owning a telescope, it was natural to me to dismiss deep sky object photography and focus on Milky Way photography and Stars trails as part of nocturnal landscape.

I recently had the opportunity to talk about Astrophotography to a local photo club, as an invited guest. This talk was an introduction to astrophotography aimed to amateur photographers on a budget, not necessarily active in the astrophotography field. Once the date was set and I started to prepare some slides, I realised I was completely dismissing deep sky object photography. I just collect some amazing photos taken with the Hubble telescope and planned to say something like "No Hubble, No photos". Then, with a laugh, move on talking about nocturnal landscapes, i.e. photographing the Milky Way, or stars trails, over a natural landscape.

But I did not like it... somehow I felt like I was overlooking things, that I owed to my audience to be accurate and complete as much as I could, hence, I took advantage of a couple of clear nights and headed to my favorite testing area near the small Belgian town of Bousval. The idea was to take some test shots of the Orion Constellation, just for fun and backup my idea that deep sky photography requires specific equipment such large telescopes, tracking mounts, specific filters and who knows what else.

My most fancy piece of equipment is the Olympus 12-40 f/2.8 PRO and my Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii camera. As a test I also grabbed my father's 40 years old, full manual, Zuiko OM 75-150 f/4 lens straight from the age of film. It comes from his glorious Olympus OM-1. As my camera sensor has a crop factor of 2, I was covered on the 24-80mm and 150-300mm focal range. 

With this equipment, though, I had two major concerns: the first being that the focal range covered by the 12-40 f/2.8 lens was too wide too see anything particular, let alone to photograph it with a fair amount of details. The second doubt was using the 75-150 f/4 lens without a tracking mount. I thought either I would get trails, either, as I was limited, at most, to exposures shorter than about 3, the photos would have been so underexposed that I would have seen nothing more than the most brilliant stars lost in a pitch black sky.

Anyway, I tried to get the Orion constellation with the 12-40 f/2.8 set at 30mm f/2.8, ISO 10 000 and exposure time of 8 seconds. I took 30 photos and, reviewing the photos on the camera LCD, I could see a smudge in the lower part of the constellation, in the Orion's skirt. I knew that could have been the Orion Nebula. I also noticed a small, faint smudge on the left part of the frame and I thought that could have been the Rosette Nebula. I packed and went home to edit the sequence. Below is the final result.

The Orion Constellation (OM-D EM-5 Mk ii | M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8 PRO | 30mm f/2.8 ISO 10 000 8s | Hoya Intensifier filter | Stack of 30 photos.

The Orion Constellation (OM-D EM-5 Mk ii | M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8 PRO | 30mm f/2.8 ISO 10 000 8s | Hoya Intensifier filter | Stack of 30 photos.

On the final image the Orion Nebula, with it's pinkish colour, is rather well defined and easily recognisable. The hint of the Rosette Nebula, though, is still just a hint, but much stronger than what I saw on the single exposure. Seemingly out of nothing, a hint of the Horsehead Nebula appears around the star on the far left of the Orion's belt and the Barnard's Loop appeared too.

Unimpressive as it is, in particular compared to the photos of the same region you can find on internet, this photo was surprising enough to spark a bit more of curiosity and determination in me: what can I possibly obtain with my non-specific equipment?

I went out the next night and this time I was determined to get something better. I started with an obvious target: if I can photograph the Orion Nebula at 30mm, I wondered, how would it appear at 150mm (300mm on full frame)? 

I took a sequence of 30 photos with my Zuiko 75-150 f/4 and I was rather impressed by what I was seeing on the LCD of my camera. I then switched to a wider target: the Pleiades and the "apparently nearby" California Nebula, framed with my Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8 PRO. This time, I could easily see the Pleiades on the LCD, but the nebula was just a hint of a faint smudge lost in the light pollution and digital noise.

Once again a packed and headed home. The next day I edited the sequences and this is what I was able to squeeze out from the highly polluted suburban Belgian sky:

The Orion Nebula. | Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii | OM Zuiko 75-150 f/4 | Hoya intensifier | 30 photos | 150mm f/4 ISO 20 000 3.2s | Untracked.

The Orion Nebula. | Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii | OM Zuiko 75-150 f/4 | Hoya intensifier | 30 photos | 150mm f/4 ISO 20 000 3.2s | Untracked.

The Pleiades and the California Nebula above. The Orion Nebula. | Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii | M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8 PRO | Hoya intensifier | 13 photos | 30 mm f/2.8 ISO 10 000 6s | Untracked.

The Pleiades and the California Nebula above. The Orion Nebula. | Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mk ii | M.Zuiko 12-40 f/2.8 PRO | Hoya intensifier | 13 photos | 30 mm f/2.8 ISO 10 000 6s | Untracked.

Those images blew me away and I now believe that (large) deep sky objects and rich constellations can be photographed with gear non-specific to astrophotography and that those photos can be both beautiful and a great source of proud for the amateur photographer who took them.

For me, those photos are source of proud, but also they represent the begining of my photographic journey to the stars, as I am so hooked up that I am purchasing a tracking mount to try to unlock and capture the beauty of the Universe and the jewels shining in it.