Olympus OM-D E-M5 Review: Astrophotography

Astro-landscapes taken at the Keystone College Observatory near Fleetville, PA,

This wasn’t one of the planned reviews, but after spending several hours shooting the night sky on Friday, I knew that I had to change the plan a little and say something about the E-M5’s capabilities in this arena. I realize that astrophotography is a pretty niche application and I don’t know how many of you really play around with it on a regular basis. But for those of you who, like me, enjoy spending a warm night outside with the camera, watching the universe turn, you’re in luck.

The image above is the pinnacle of my Friday night. It’s a composite image, built from three separate one minute exposures, imported into Photoshop as layers and stacked together using the Screen blend mode. (Using three shorter exposures instead of one long exposure keeps the noise down.) This was shot from a tripod, obviously, and only shows a short amount of trailing in the stars. But apply the same method forward, with 15-20 shots in sequence, and you’ll have a pretty awesome image.

So what makes the E-M5 shine in this realm? It probably won’t capture any more stars than any other camera, but it will do a heck of a nice job at it (with the right lens) and it will make the whole process a lot easier. For starters, the whole mirrorless concept makes a lot of sense for long-exposure shooting – no more vibration worries, no more mirror-lockup.

So here’s what I was working with:

  • E-M5 + Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4 lens
  • ISO 200, f/2(ish)
  • Manual focus, 2-second self-timer, shutter speeds from .6” down to 60”

When I started shooting, it was still late twilight, and only the brightest stars were showing. Under these conditions, the AF wasn’t able to get a lock, so I switched to manual focus and used the rear screen to zoom in on Venus – the brightest object in the night sky at the time – to get my focus. (If you’ve ever tried to manually focus a star, you know that they never really look sharp – it’s more a matter of getting as little halo-effect as possible, which lets you know that you’ve got it right.)

Astro-landscapes taken at the Keystone College Observatory near Fleetville, PA,

For me, the worst part of astrophotography has always been how uncomfortable it is. The camera is on the tripod, the lens pointed skyward, which means that the viewfiner and rear screen are aimed at the ground. The only way to see them was to sit/squat/kneel under the camera, in a position that started to hurt after a while. I can’t tell you how happy I am to be done with all that! With the OM-D, I just flipped down the rear screen and was able to shoot happily away.

This has the added benefit of making it much (much, much) easier to compose your scene. Optical viewfinders are always darker than the actual scene, and at night it can be almost impossible to find the stars and/or landscape elements that you want to frame. The EVF is much brighter and makes it much easier to find and frame composition elements, even in relative darkness (it’s not night-vision, but there is a marked difference).

Unlike all the other cameras I’ve owned, which have shutter speeds ending at 30”, the E-M5’s stretches out to a full minutes. A click beyond that is Bulb mode (which is only useful if you have a remote, since it records for whatever length of time the shutter button is depressed) and finally Live Time. Live Time is where you want to be for this kind of work; the exposure starts when you trip the shutter and ends when you push it a second time (a remote would still be best for this, to eliminate any chance of camera shake).

Best of all, during a Live Time exposure, the display shows a running timer, broken down to the half-second, of elapsed exposure time. The image on the rear screen also gives a rough view of the exposure, with a refresh interval that updates it (and is apparently adjustable somewhere in the depths of the menu system).

Personally, I found Live Time to be the best feature for astrophotography, as it completely eliminates the challenge of timing bulb exposures. In the past, I was either squinting to see the 7D’s timer on the top display (difficult at best in the dark, when you can’t use a light during the active exposure) or using my cell phone as a stopwatch. There’s no more guesswork – the timer is built right in, as it should be.

Astro-landscapes taken at the Keystone College Observatory near Fleetville, PA,

I used manual focus the whole time, but as I was packing up, I pulled the camera off the tripod and tried the AF again, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it worked – and worked well. When I had first tried it, during twilight, there just wasn’t enough contrast between the dimming sky and the stars – but in full-darkness, it was able to lock focus on Venus, as well as a few of the brighter stars. Knowing this now, it should be even easier next time, as I’ll be able to compose, AF, and shoot all with the rear touch screen.

The resulting image files look awesome – I’m very happy with them. I was able to shoot at or below ISO 400 the whole time, in part because I was using a fast prime lens and in part because I was shooting long-exposures with the intention of capturing stellar motion (star trails).

I really have to give mad props to the lens – the Panasonic Leica Summalux 25mm f/1.4. It is an incredible lens, fast and very sharp, even when wide-open. With a 50mm equivalency, it isn’t quite as wide as I’d usually like, but it was simply so easy, and so much fun, to work with that I never even thought about switching back to the kit lens.

So there you have it – a somewhat unexpected review, but further solid proof that the E-M5 is a seriously capable little camera.

[These may look a little dark/muddy on uncalibrated monitors 🙁 ]

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. Live time Preview Setting: Menu -> Gears -> E Exp/ISO -> Live TIME

    • Brent Pennington

      Zack, you’re becoming a master at using the manual! You’ll have it and the menus memorized soon 🙂

  2. Archer

    Thanks. You are confirming what I thought this camera could do, although I’m more than a bit surprised that it can AF on stars! That’s a pleasant surprise.

    • Brent Pennington

      You’re welcome – glad I could help! It won’t focus on all stars, but it doesn’t seem to have any trouble with the brighter ones after it’s fully dark out. Definitely an improvement over the other cameras I’ve used at night.

  3. Alaksandu

    Actually, I believe at least the Olympus M43 cameras have an “anti-shock” setting, and it’s not just there for show. These things don’t have mirrors but they do have focal plane shutters. Especially with the models in the 300 g range these are plenty capable of blurring the picture, as some users have reported problems.

    So if just shooting away works, then that’s a good thing of course. But if you want to be absolutely sure you’re getting the most out of your camera you should use the anti-shock setting.

  4. I am assuming this will do the same with short shutter times that my E-3 could do… the question I have is how long does the battery last…? I took this shot… http://www.onthewallphoto.net/Still-Life/Abstracts/i-nMzkHHt/3/X2/Final-X2.jpg all night long… 15sec exposures with a shutter release cable locked up, ISO 160 at f3.5, I think I changed the battery 4 times that night.. with 3 batteries cycling through a charge (thank god for generators).

    With the noise being better in the OM-D, I would think that you could go for longer shutter speeds and thus reduce the amount of photo’s needed to blend and less trail breaks.

  5. When this first came out and Olmypus was touting the whole “3 axis stability” stuff, I immediately thought that this could be extremely useful for astrophotography. I would love to see results of the OM-D with a T-ring adapter mounted to a telescope on some sort of auto-guider setup. Thanks for the write above!

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