Last week I wrote about my dislike for the Fuji X-Pro1, but that's not to say it's an objectively-bad camera. My personal take on the image quality is that it gets a solid B or B+. I grade on an absolute scale, not relative to other cameras in the same size/price range, so this is fair praise. In particular, its low light performance seems pretty good.
The Fuji is probably not better than other cameras of the current generation, but that's a big improvement over my four-year old Olympus. What this really speaks to is the overall state of digital photography today. To put it technically, Fuji's low light abilities are effin' unbelievable.
Here's the setup:
One of the best things I did on my Minneapolis vacation was I got to spend three days with my friend Rachel at her folk's cabin on the North Shore (of Lake Superior) so we could get in some stargazing.
"Stargazing" is a euphemism.
We're both avid amateur astronomers, and whenever I visit Minneapolis the two of us try to get in some observing time together. She's got lots easier access to dark(er) skies than I do, so I see lots of stuff with her that I don't get to see at home, even though I've got a 10" scope and she has a six.
Up on the North Shore, it gets really dark. To the south of the cabin is the vast, wet, and unpopulated expanse of Lake Superior. The only sources of light pollution are Duluth, which is a good 100 miles to the west, and, eastward, the teeming metropolis of Grand Marais (pop: 1,300). We lucked into two nights of mostly clear skies (and mostly moon-free, it should go without saying). Two out of three is not bad.
Aside from looking at a whole bunch of old favorites, I got to see several objects I'd never been able to observe before, because of too-bright skies, including the great spiral galaxy, M101, and a very nearby dwarf galaxy that was an NGC object, my first ever NGC galaxy [NGC = John Dreyer's New General Catalogue of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars, a well-known catalogue of deep sky objects —Ed.]. The sky was so dark, in fact, that the two of us observed that the North America nebula was just barely a naked eye object! A surprise discovery for both of us.
I like playing around with astrophotography. The simple kind, where you just set the camera up on a tripod, open the shutter for a while, and see what gets recorded. I'd done some of that with my Olympus Pen and was always amazed at what a few seconds of exposure could capture. The Fuji blew way beyond that previous amazement.
The aforementioned North America nebula took a mere 5 second exposure at ISO 1600 (figure 1). This is a 50%-scale crop from the full frame that clearly shows the nebula's reddish color as well as the signature "Gulf of Mexico." By astrophoto standards, nothing to write home about. But, for a normal camera with a normal lens, just plopped on a tripod, it's impressive.
For true mind-blowing performance, though, check out this photo of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) along with its two satellites (figure 2). Now we're cranked up to ISO 4000, and this 100% crop faintly shows the dust lanes in the spiral arms. True, they're right down at the level of system noise, but they persist from frame to frame, so I know they're real and not artifact.
Photographing Andromeda isn't hard; it's bright and big. Getting detail in it with an ordinary camera is another matter. Wish I'd had a third clear night so I could've tried this with a longer lens.
I'm not quite done.
The trip had an added bonus for me: there were fireflies up there. Fireflies! I was in heaven. Those are one of my few fond childhood memories and I hadn't seen any in decades (they don't exist where I live). After I jumped up and down and burbled and cried a little bit, I went for the camera (figure 3). Sorry for the unlevel horizon line—I couldn't see what I was pointing at! The only source of illumination in this photograph is starlight and airglow. (Rachel and I don't know if the faint pink and green bands in the color are a very dim auroral display or due to very thin high clouds. They were below human visibility. They're not camera artifacts.). This isn't dusk, it's 1:00 in the morning. Stars in the sky, fireflies in the trees. What could be better?
I never in my wildest dreams imagined I'd ever be making photographs by starlight with a normal camera. And, remember, the Fuji is far from the best low-light camera on the market today.
As I said—putting it technically—it's effin' unbelievable.
And, let's not forget, we're still a couple of stops away from theoretical limits of performance (see "Photography at the Speed of Light" and "Something Old Something New"). Things will only get more unbelievable.
Ctein's weekly column rises above the level of system noise on Wednesdays.
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.