An EPIC Weekend Adventure to Kuantan Shooting Stars, Sunrise and Anything in Between

Shutter therapy took an unexpected turn this weekend. I took a break from what I do normally and took on a journey to many firsts: 
1) My first trip to Kuantan, Pahang
2) My first time seeing the Milky Way and shooting it (I told dear friend Sameer I have seen it, but now that I tried to recall I actually have not seen it)
3) My first time shooting everything night sky, besides the Milky Way I also shot Star Trails
4) My First time using the amazing function in the OM-D, Live Composite setting
5) My first time shooting steel wool
6) Basically, this was my first all out landscape and night sky photography outing. 

I was travelling with a HUGE group of photography enthusiasts from Photographic Society of Petaling Jaya (PSPJ) to Kuantan, Pahang, a state on the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. This was quite an adventurous photography outing, with activities planned to fill the shooting hours all the way till the darkest hours of the night. I departed with more than 30 photographers from Kuala Lumpur, driving about 3 hours to arrive at a sea-side location at ungodly 4am in the morning, and shooting started immediately with Milky Way beaming down on us in the dark, beautiful skies of East Coast Malaysia. The shooting went on non-stop with very little sleep in between and boy, what an exhilarating and fulfilling weekend, both for my photography self, and my soul!

After work on Friday evening, I headed home, packed up enough change of shirt for 2 days adventure, and brought along the new Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with several M.Zuiko lenses, 12mm F2 (primary lens for this trip), 9-18mm F4-5.6, 25mm F1.8, 45mm F1.8 and 75-300mm. I used all lenses  in this trip. I also brought along a tripod, which was an absolute necessity for almost all photographs shown in this entry. 

I will as usual, share my experience from the trip, with plenty of photographs taken, and also what went behind each photographs, what I have learned and what could have been improved. 

Let's start with the night sky. The Stars. It was a Sky Full of Stars (cue Coldplay song). 

12mm F2, 25sec, F2, ISO3200

45mm F1.8, 20sec, F2.5, ISO1250

12mm F2, 25sec, F2,  ISO3200

12mm F2, 25sec, F2, ISO3200

12mm F2, 25ec, F2, ISO3200


I have never attempted shooting a night sky full of stars before. My reasons are easily understood: I live in Kuala Lumpur, a big city with plenty of tall buildings emitting much horrible light pollution, and not having a big enough group of friends to travel out of the city (we are talking about hours of drive out of the light pollution source) for safety reasons, since doing anything in small groups with expensive set of photographic equipment out in the open is inviting trouble. In case you are not familiar with Malaysia, crime rate  here is not exactly what we call low. When the opportunity suddenly presented itself, with invitation from dear friend Ron Lau (who is the president of PSPJ now) to join an outing to Kuantan with a massive group of photography crazy people, I knew I must made the jump! I have no more excuse for not attempting this. 

Sure, before I went to the trip, knowing I was completely noob and has no experience, I did some quick online research. I have come up with a list of techniques and settings, which is as follows:

1) Using wide angle big aperture prime lens is important. 
I brought along the Olympus M.Zuiko 12mm F2 which is the main lens I used for the night sky shooting. Wide angle lens is preferable so that the camera has a wide enough coverage of the night sky to fit in as much milky was as possible. A bright aperture is required so that the ISO setting does not have to be bumped up too ridiculously high, to control noise level in the photograph. Olympus 12mm F2 was just right, but I do wish it was a tad wider so I can see MORE of the skies. 

2) Camera settings: using 500 rule
Basically, it was at the darkest hour before dawn, and every camera settings must be made to maximize light capture, with the limit of the shutter speed rule capped by the 500 rule. Therefore, having the Olympus E-M5 Mark II, I set the ISO to 3200, aperture of the 12mm lens opened to the widest F2, and finally, the shutter speed was set to 25sec (500 rule decides the longest shutter speed permissible, 500/24 = 20sec, but I decided to stretch the shutter speed a little). The Image Stabilization was turned off, and I used a 2 sec timer with anti-shock setting enabled to get ride of shutter vibration. I decided not to trigger with my smartphone (via wifi) to minimize light pollution, yes even any source of light nearby the camera will affect the final image quality. 

3) Focusing set to infinity
Olympus lens 12mm F2 , it has the focus distance and depth of field scale, which was super useful when manual focusing comes to play. 

When I first arrived on location and saw the Milky Way, goodness, no words can describe how beautiful it was. I can now understand why so many photographers would wake up at crazy hours and make a long drive out to shoot the skies. Seriously, the awe and majestic feeling being underneath the sky full of stars, in a near complete darkness open spot, has it's own therapeutic properties. My images do not do justice in showing the grandness of the Milky Way. 

Some interesting points: the Live View Boost available on the E-M5 Mark II allows superb visibility even in such extreme low light condition. I could see the sky and stars, and even compose it. The only drawback was the drop of refresh rate and general lagginess of operations while the live view boost was enabled. Nonetheless, the ability to see what I am shooting, coupled with the aid of the fully articulated swivel screen, it made my life much easier!

Another note, people have been bashing Olympus cameras for not being able to perform in high ISO shooting, in low light conditions. I find the E-M5 mark II more than capable in shooting night skies. No, in contrary to all the guides and recommendations by many sites on astro-photography, you DO NOT NEED Full Frame to shoot the stars. I have just proven this, have I not?

After Milky Way we proceeded to the next location to shoot the sunrise.

Almost Sunrise
12mm F2, 15sec, F2.5, ISO1250

9-18mm F4-5.6, 1/3sec, ISO200, F22

9-18mm F4-5.6, 1/8sec, ISO200, F22

Hidden Sunset
75-300mm, 1/1250sec, F6.7, ISO1000

Sunrise was a failure, The sun was hiding behind a huge stretch of clouds, thus no dtamatic light, nothing very interesting about the light on the beach which we went to. No, that did not stop us from taiking some photographs, and I did some slow shutter on the waves, with a few foreground subjects. Nothing spectacular or special here, but being on the beach before sunrise, and watching the night sky fading away into the brightness of day, was something I have not done in many years. 


I have a confession. I have not used the Olympus Live Composite Function before. I know what it is, I know how it works, and I know when we should be using it. However I have not have any opportunity to try it, and my usual photography activities do not require Live Composite. Basically, Live Composite is an image stacking feature for long exposure photography, all built into the camera, designed to shoot images of fireworks, and star-trail. If you want to find out more about this amazing Olympus feature, please go to the video tutorial here

We were shooting sparks flying from the burned steel wool, which can be quite dramatic. Instead of using the normal long exposure, I used the Live Composite, which stacked many images into one, to prevent over-exposure after recording a very long shutter image. 

The great thing about using Live Composite, is that the images captured will be stacked immediately and the preview is shown live as the camera is shooting. You will know when the image is enough, or over-done. And you can go as long as you want keeping the shutter open, without getting over-exposure. This surely is a huge advantage over using the traditional Bulb mode. Without any preview, or without knowing how long you need to shoot, it is easy to burn the image, or not knowing if the desired output is achieved. Olympus Live Composite is quite an important innovation when it comes to long exposure photography! 

9-18mm, 3.2sec, ISO200, F4, Live Composite

9-18mm, 4sec, ISO200, F4, Live Composite

12mm F2, 30sec each image, F2, ISO1600 Live Composite 
(25 minutes shot with total of 50 images)


When we went back to the following morning, trying to shoot Milky Way again, we were greeted with ugly patches of clouds, and the position of Milky Way was exactly behind those clouds. 

I did not despair, knowing I will not have Milky Way, I did something different. I changed the camera settings to capture Star Trail instead. 

From the photography guide I have read, I would need at least 30 minutes to get partial star trail, and I would require about 45 minutes to 60 minutes to get a fuller trail image. Actual star trail photography requires tedious amount of stacking and noise reduction works, but Olympus made it so easy with just a few clicks in the camera, and everything is taken care of. Yes, it is the magical Live Composite again, and all the hard work of noise reduction and image stacking performed in camera. 

Now something unexpected happen. It was stupid of me not to fit in a fresh, fully charged battery into the E-M5 Mark II, I was using a half-beaten battery when I started the Star Trail shoot. As the camera took about 20 images (nearing 15 minutes of capture time) the battery warning screamed red, blinking! I panicked, and I was worried I may have wasted the 15 minutes of effort! 15 minutes is not a short wait. 

Before I stopped the camera, I gave it a few further considerations, and the Engineer in me took over. The Engineer in me said, stop it now, so we can keep the 15 minutes star trail, in case the camera suddenly shut down and not save anything that was recorded earlier. Then, I asked myself, if I was an Engineer working for Olympus R&D department, how would I design the camera if such situation is encountered? I would have thought of this sticky circumstance, and I would have made sure the camera has a fail safe, and ability to save the last recorded image before dying out. Was Olympus smart enough to implement this? If I took the risk and let the camera continue recording, would it just suddenly give up on me and I lose the 15-20 minutes of recording data?

I took the risk. It was comforting to know that just before the battery dried out, the camera stopped at 25 minutes and saved the image successfully, as shown in the above star trail image. 

Should I start again another star trail attempt, I would not have made it as the group decided to head back to our homestay early, since the cloud obscured the Milky Way and no one was staying. We waited for the cloud to clear but it just got worse and not having sufficient rest/sleep from the previous long day of driving and continuous shooting, walking and overdose of conversation filled with laughter, the comfortable bed and pillows were just too tempting to turn down. 

Yes, it was my virgin attempt on Star Trail and I only had ONE chance. I know it would have been better if the camera was left for another 10-15 minutes to capture a fuller trail, but hey, I was fortunate I did not lose everything and come home with nothing instead. 

 Lesson learned, replace the battery with a FULLY CHARGED one before shooting anything long exposure intensive.

A great honor shooting alongside PSPJ members! Such an inspiring group of super motivated and fun-loving photogrphers. 
Photo Credit: Jon Liang (who is also the organizer and leader for this particular Kuantan outing)

Special thanks to Jon Liang for being super efficient, attentive and making sure everything went well. 
Also, special thanks to newly met friend, Sameer for driving me all the way! Dinner on me the next time we meet. 

If you are in Kuala Lumpur or Selangor and looking for a group of crazy photographers to hang out with, and do photography outings with, do visit PSPJ here: Facebook Page and Official Website.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II is available from B&H (click here). 
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  1. Replies
    1. Such a beautiful place. I will surely go again.

  2. Isn't the battery meter also very conservative? It seems like it starts warning you very far in advance of when the battery will actually die. In this case, I guess it was 10 minutes?

    1. Yeah I had about 10 minutes, and I got additional 20 shots before it died. I dont think it was conservative. But then again, we would appreciate the battery meter to indicate battery left by percentage! others are doing it, why not olympus?

  3. Just a few questions-suggestion
    1) In your last photo of star trail you could have reduced the exposure to 15 -20 sec this could have enabled you to get perhaps darker sky. Am I correct?
    2) With OMD Em5 mark 2 could one click 40 mega pixel photo of night sky? Even with limitation of 8 sec max expo it might act like 32 sec photo (due to star trail). Question is How would it look for milkyway?
    3) It would be cool if one could use Live composite in conjunction with 40 mega pixel photo. There are so many possibilities with this.

    1. Hi Nikhil,
      Answering your questions:
      1) No, the sky was dark enough based on the original exposure, however, the clouds came much later (20 minutes into shooting time). Originally there were no clouds which reflected the light pollution.
      2) You CANNOT use the 40MP high res shot with live composite, it is simply impossible. Understanding how 40MP high res shot works, you need to capture 8 separate images to be joined into one image. The first 40MP image (may already have issues being merged into the 40MP shot since 8 images will record star movements over a span of more than one minute capture time) will not stack into the second 40MP image due to time interval between shots, hence you will get gaps in between the trails, not smooth lines. Even so, 8 seconds is barely enough. You are limited to ISO1600 (you cannot go higher). There are possibly a dozen more reasons but I think I have demonstrated enough how Live Composite does not work with 40MP.

  4. Thks for clearing the doubts. One more question
    What would happen if you try HD 40 mega pixel mode it on milkyway. Would u get a image at 1600 iso and how would it look knowing that star are not steady.

    1. You will not have a bright enough image. I shot the Milky way at F2 with ISO3200 at 25 seconds exposure. If you use 40MP high res shot, you only have ISO1600 and 8sec. That is about 3 stops of light loss. You can still get the star image but it will be much darker.

    2. Thks for making it clear.
      Do try it once if you get a chance. I wish this 8 sec and 1600 ISO limitation is removed in the new firmware.
      What ever the output it should be Ok with the photographer at least one can try some weird ideas with it.

      I have Omd em5 and it is 2 years old, should i wait for OMD em1 mark 2 or just go ahead with OMD em5 2.

  5. Good job, Robin! Additionally if take in account, that it is your first invasion to the night sky photography! What comes up on my mind, when someone speaks about the night sky are photos of this guy. Can I publish a link here?:

    1. Thanks Michael for the kind words. And wow, that guy in the link you shared is hardcore... modified camera, composite images... too technical for me!

  6. Robin, I've used Live Composite with E-M10 to shoot stair trails. You can use smartphone with OI Share, additional light from phone LCD screen should be no problem at all (you can set your screen to dim)

    1. Rupert, perhaps I did not explain the condition there, where we had more than 30 people scattered everywhere, some in front of me, some behind me. Having my phone screen on may actually cause light pollution not for my own camera (since I am standing behind it) but to those around me, or behind me. We were squatting or sitting on the ground.

  7. Wonderful results. It looks like you've been doing this for a long time -- not a first outing.

    1. Surely my first time. But knowing the Olympus system through and through helps!

  8. Wow, simply wow! Some very, very powerful and expressive images in there. Gorgeous, top notch work! My hat off to you, Robin!

    1. Andre you are being too kind. There are many better Milky Way photographs out there. I am super new to this. Hope to shoot more in the future

    2. Oh ye of little faith! I may be something of a dinosaur, but when my old eyes see excellent work I call it what it is. This is simply gorgeous material. Beautiful composition and visual impact (the tree branch in the surf, I just love it) the special ambiance and the lovely colors. All that is much more important than all this sharp-to-the-last-billionth-pixelmania. The Milky Way shots are just amazing. With my gear one can drive a battleship in between the pixels at those ISO's. Maybe things could perhaps technically somewhat better with $50,000 medium format gear, but there's not much to be improved.

      You are really much better, both artistically and technically than you give yourself credit for. Trust me on this.

  9. Impressive i ages as usual, Robin.. May i ask you a couple of question? Agreed that EM5mk2 is one hell of a camera. I wish i could have one myself. But for now, i'll have to make do with my trusty old EM5. But is it up for the task, to take picture of the milkyway? Or it'll produce a lot of noise i couldnt get rid of later on? And some say that EM1 isnt suitable for this kind of shooting condition, since it'll make even more noise than EM5 when taking long exposure. Is it true? Im looking forward hearing your reply. Thanks a lot.... And keep shooting...

  10. Gorgeous and captivating series!

  11. Gorgeous and captivating series!

  12. Hi Robin, love your work! I am noob at using the em1 and completely inspired by what you have done with the star scape, star trail and live composite pics. Are these OOC JPEGs or are they shot in raw and post-processed? I have attempted to capture similar star scape pics but with similar settings my pics are blown out with the high ISOs. I suspect its due to light pollution as anybody else would probably experience if they lived near a city or perhaps too much moonlight? I have come across other bloggers who have taken star scape pics (in RAW I presume) in or near a city but they had to post process using ETTR to reveal the hidden milky way. Is this the way to go if we can't get the opportunity to drive miles from city?

  13. Hi Robin, love your work! I am noob at using the em1 and completely inspired by what you have done with the star scape, star trail and live composite pics. Are these OOC JPEGs or are they shot in raw and post-processed? I have attempted to capture similar star scape pics but with similar settings my pics are blown out with the high ISOs. I suspect its due to light pollution as anybody else would probably experience if they lived near a city or perhaps too much moonlight? I have come across other bloggers who have taken star scape pics (in RAW I presume) in or near a city but they had to post process using ETTR to reveal the hidden milky way. Is this the way to go if we can't get the opportunity to drive miles from city?

  14. I suspect its due to light pollution as anybody else would probably experience if they lived near a city or perhaps too much moonlight? I have come across other bloggers who have taken star scape pics (in RAW I presume) in or near a city but they had to post process using ETTR to reveal the hidden milky way.
    giay in ma vach

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  16. Where in kuantan did you stay/take the pictures frim?