Venus, Juputer and Scorpius over Marina Bay Sands DSCF7785

Venus, Jupiter and Scorpius over Marina Bay Sands

For the past few days, the early morning sky has few clouds. After some research on Stellarium and close monitoring of various weather apps, I got my camera gears packed and ready for the early morning starry sky photo shoot on 7 Feb 2019 at the Merlion Park. I managed to capture the brighter stars and planets e.g. Venus and Jupiter.

Starry Sky HDR Stack

Here’s a stack using James Ritson’s Artic Chamber HDR merge of 2 photos taken with Fujifilm X-T1 and the kit lens Fujinon Lens XF18-55mm F2.8-4.0. The Milky Way (Galactic Centre) is faintly visible above Marina Bay Sands!

Starry Sky over Marina Bay Sands HDR

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Milky Way at Mersing Srikandi Resort on 18 Mar 2018

Stargazing and Milky Way viewing near Mersing

In order for city dwellers in Singapore to stargaze and take photos of the starry night sky, we have to travel across the causeway to Malaysia.

I visited Srikandi Resort in Mersing twice, once on my own and another time with a group of astrophotographers led by Remus Chua.

I went to Srikandi Resort in June 2017 and again in March 2018.

Mersing Srikandi Resort Chalets, Jun 2017

Mersing Milky Way Trip, June 2017

For my first trip, I travelled by public transport. I took the bus from Singapore to Larkin. From JB Larkin Sentral, I took the S&S express bus to Mersing Bus Terminal. Then I took a taxi to the Srikandi Resort, about 30 minutes’ drive north of Mersing town.

Milky Way at Mersing Srikandi Resort on 20 June 2017

It was a weekday and there was no other guest. The place was empty and really dark at night. Despite the not so clear sky, I was able to see the Milky Way!

Milky Way at Mersing Srikandi Resort on 20 June 2017

The dark sky at Srikandi Resort Mersing on 20 June 2017

The resort’s kitchen only opens on weekend and there is no restaurant nearby. As such, I stayed for only one night on my first trip as I did not want to carry more than one day’s ration of food and drink.

Mersing Astrophotography Trip, March 2018

To save the hustle of taking multiple buses and taxi rides, I decided to join 3D2N Astrophotography Trip to Mersing in March 2018 organised by Remus Chua, founder of the SingAstro forum.

The assembly and pickup point was at Kranji MRT on a Friday morning. Beside the two-way transportation by MPV between Kranji MRT and Srikandi Resort, meals (2 dinners, 2 breakfasts and 1 lunch) were provided at the resort during the 3D2N weekend trip. Visit www.celestialportraits.com to find out more.

Milky Way at Mersing Srikandi Resort on 17 Mar 2018

Milky Way at Mersing Srikandi Resort on 17 Mar 2018

Meteor, Mars, Milky Way and Lone Tree at Kg Sugud, Penampang, Sabah - 2018 Aug 13

Stargazing and Milky Way viewing near Kota Kinabalu

Last August I went to Sabah hoping to catch a glimpse the Perseid Meteor Shower. I spent the first two nights camping at Tegudon Tourism Village and the final night at a “dark sky” location near Kota Kinabalu, about 35 minutes’ drive from Kota Kinabalu International Airport.

The stargazing and Milky Way view point was located up in the hills along the Sugud Timpango Road. Standing at 600m above sea level, I could see the bright lights of Kota Kinabalu. In the south direction was the Crocker Range and the sky was dark but cloudy!

When we arrived at 10pm, the city of Kota Kinabalu glowing in light pollution. The stray light from the distant Kota Kinabalu city was bright enough to be reflected by the low clouds and made visible the nearby trees and excavated slope.

Milky Way hiding behind low cloud at Kg Sugud, Penampang, Sabah - 2018 Aug 13

According to the local people, the area is known as Kampung Sugud, Penampang. However, the nearest landmark indicated on OpenStreetMap.org and Google Maps when I tried to search for the exact location online is known as Himpangno. Here’s the map below if you’re interested to visit this place.

Kg Sugud aka Himpangno along the Sugud Timpangno Road, Panampang, Sabah

After some quick recce of the area I found a lone declining tree and decided to use it to frame the Milky Way shot. The planet Mars was shining brightly and appeared to be relatively bigger due to the diffused light caused by the thin cloud. It would have been better if the sky was clear and completely without cloud.

Mars, Milky Way and lone tree at Kg Sugud, Penampang, Sabag 2018 Aug 13

Being here for the first time and able to capture several satisfactory shots of the Milk Way made me want to return again.

This location is great for stargazing and Milky Way viewing as it is less than an hour’s drive from Kota Kinabalu. I really envy the locals who live nearly and can come up here as and when there is no moon and the sky is clear.

Perseid Fireball at Kg Sugud, Penampang, Sabah 2018 Aug 13

Fujifilm X-T1 and Samyang 12mm F2.0

My Camera and Lens for Milky Way Photography

When I first visited Sabah to join the Hunt for Milky Way in 2017, I brought along a borrowed Canon 600D DSLR camera fitted with the EF-S 10-22mm F/3.5-4.5 ultra wide-angle zoom lens. The result was not good because of my lack of experience in taking night photography and long exposure shots. Furthermore, I did not spend time to learn and practise to use the functions of the Canon DSLR.

One big mistake I made was NOT turning off the Long Exposure Noise Reduction function and I have to waited several seconds after every shot before taking the next. An experience astrophotographer, Harris Jeffrey, from Sabah Stargazer helped me to check my camera and corrected the settings. I learned a lot during the 7 nights of shooting at different dark sky locations in Sabah. The locations include: Tambunan Viewing Point, Hounon Ridge (Bundu Tuhan), Tip of Borneo (Kudat), Tambatuon Homestead, Lasau Podi (Kota Belud) and SK New Guakon (Tuaran).

Here’s a couple of Milky Way photos I took with the Canon 600D + EF-S 10-22mm.

Milky Way at Tambunan - 26 Feb 2017

F3.5 | 25s | ISO3200 | Canon 600D + EF-S 10-22mm

Milky Way over Mt Nungkok at Tambatuon Homestead - 1 Mar 2017

F3.5 | 25s | ISO3200 | Canon 600D + EF-S 10-22mm

As far as camera gears are concerned, I learned that a fast lens is definitely required and it has to be F2.8 or faster, preferably F2.0 or F1.4. Then I can either use a lower ISO to reduce the noise or faster shutter speed to reduce the star trails. As you can see from the images above are noisy and not very sharp.

I was disappointed by the photos but fascinated by the starry sky in Sabah. My new found interest in stargazing prompted me to invest in my own camera and lens setup for Milky Way photography.

Fujifilm X-T1 and Samyang 12mm F2.0

After several days of intense research online, my conclusion was to buy a Fujifilm X-T1 mirrorless camera and the Samyang 12mm F2.0 manual focus lens. This is a light-weight and compact setup consists of the camera body, the lens, the tripod, spare battery and memory card. I do not even need a separate intervalometer remote control because the X-T1 has built-in time lapse function.

Within a month of returning from Sabah’s Hunt for Milky Way Trip, I went to Tioman Island to test out my new camera and lens. Here’s a couple of shots from that trip.

Lightning and Milky Way at Tunamay Resort, Tioman Island

F2.0 | 25s | ISO5000 | Fujifilm X-T1 + Samyang 12mm F2.0

Meteor, Milky Way and Zodiacal Light, Tioman Island

F2.0 | 20s | ISO3200 | Fujifilm X-T1 + Samyang 12mm F2.0

I was quite happy with the X-T1 camera and Samyang 12mm lens. The night skies and Milky Way photographs I shot at Tioman Island were much better than those I shot in Sabah a month earlier. They are sharper and less noisy even at ISO6400. And I love the Fujifilm colours straight out of camera.

It has been more than a year since I shot with the X-T1/Samyang 12mm setup and used it on several trips to Malaysia to shoot the Milky Way and the meteor showers.

My Camera Settings for Milky Way Shots

Here’s a checklist of settings on my X-T1 when I’m going on a Milky Way trip:

  1. Set Image Quality to record in RAW format.
  2. Set Long Exposure NR to “OFF”
  3. Pre-focus the lens to infinity when there’s still daylight.
  4. Set the white balance to “Auto”. Sometimes, I’ll select custom setting and use “4000K”.

I use manual mode for all the Milky Way shots. I always start with a couple of test shots at this exposure setting: F2.0, 25s and ISO 6400. Then I’ll adjust the shutter speed and sometime the ISO to get the ideal exposure for the image. I tend to overexpose most of my shots and then correct it in the post-processing. However, the longer shutter speed caused the star trails and the brighter stars would not appear to be perfectly circular. In order to shave a few more seconds off the shutter speed, I’ll need a faster lens. And that will be a topic for another blog post.

Milky Way at Kg Salimbangun, Semporna - 2018 Apr 22

F2.0 | 25S | ISO6400 | FUJIFILM X-T1 + SAMYANG 12MM F2.0

Milky Way at Tegudon Tourism Village, Kota Belud

Camping under the Milky Way in Sabah

The idea of camping next to a pristine river with Mount Kinabalu in full view and the chance to see Geminids Meteor Shower was an opportunity too good to pass up. With luck, we might even be able to see the Winter Milky Way!

Mount Kinabalu viewed from Tegudon Tourism Village, Kota Belud

Geminids Meteor Shower 2017

Knowing that December is one of the wettest month of the year in Sabah didn’t stop our yearning to see one of the greatest meteor showers.

So my wife and I made the trip in December 2017 and camped at Tegudon Tourism Village, Kota Belud. We were quite lucky that it didn’t rain during our two nights camping at Tegudon Tourism Village.

Fireball at Tegudon Tourism Village, Kota Belud on Dec 17, 2017

Geminid’s fireball captured at Tegudon Tourism Village on 17 Dec 2017.

The sky was overcast most of the time and only cleared up briefly during the night. We managed to catch several meteors and glimpses of the Winter Milky Way.

Winter Milky Way at Tegudon Tourism Village

Mount Kinabalu and Winter Milky Way at Tegudon Tourism Village.

Overall, our first camping trip to Sabah turned to be better than expected despite our worries about the heavy rain due to the northeast monsoons and possible flooding!

We were happy to have enjoyed the bathing and rafting at the river, caught several glimpses of the Geminids meteor shower, and took photo of the majestic Mount Kinabalu with the Winter Milky Way as the backdrop.

Parseid Meteor Shower 2018

In August 2018, I camped again at Tegudon Tourism Village hoping to capture the Parseid Meteor Shower and the Milky Way. However, the sky was cloudy on both nights and most of the shots were obscured by the clouds.

Milky Way Galactic Center at Tegudon Tourism Village (Aug 2018)

Camping under the stars at Tegudon Tourism Village, Kota Belud, Sabah.

I only captured two shots with a meteor out of the several hundred frames on time-lapse.

Parseid fireball at Tegudon Tourism Village

Mars and Parseid’s fireball over Mount Kinabalu on 10 Aug 2018.

Parseid Meteor at Tegudon Tourism Village

Parseid’s meteor at Tegudon Tourism Village on 11 Aug 2018.

Featured image at the top was photographed during my second camping trip at Tegudon Tourism Village in August 2018.

Using the Antares to find the Milky Way Galactic Center

When I first started astrophotography, my first question was where to find the Milky Way. Later on, I realised our Solar System is part of the Milky Way and I am right inside it. Technically speaking, what I wanted was to photography the Galactic Core of the Milky Way.

The simple answer is: between March and October, point the camera towards the southern sky for the Milky Way center.

I live in a heavily light-pollution city, Singapore, and very unlikely I’ll ever catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. Most of the time, I could only see the brighter stars and planets. When I look towards the Southern sky, sometimes I’ll see the Orion’s Belt or the Southern Cross (Crux).

How to Find the Milky Way without an App

Scorpius, Sagittarius and the Milky Way Center - Marina Barrage, Singapore

Scorpius, Sagittarius and the Milky Way center vaguely visible at the Marina Barrage, Singapore on 20 Aug 2017 at 8.16pm

After months of stargazing and learning from experienced stargazers, I could now identify the Antares and recognise some of the brighter stars that form the Scorpius. However, I still find it rather difficult to locate the stars that make up the constellation of Sagittarius especially when the Milky Way was still low on the horizon. Instead of using the Sagittarius to find the Milky Way center, I’ll trace the Scorpius constellation with Antares as reference to locate the “tail of the scorpion”. This is where I’ll point my camera to photograph the center of the Milky Way.

As for locating my direction, I rely on a keychain compass because most of the time the mobile app would not work at dark sites far from the city where the mobile data connection was slow and intermittent.

Keychain compass

A keychain compass to find the South(S) and Southeast(SE)

So far, my hunt for Milky Way trips were organised in March or April and the Galactic Core would rise about midnight. I would usually see the Antares rose above the horizon and recognised the Scorpius before the Sagittarius became visible.

Even in light-polluted Singapore on a clear night, one can easily see the bright reddish orange colour Antares and hence identify the Scorpius constellation. The photo above was taken in August at the Marina Barrage in Singapore. It was the first can only occasion where I captured both the Scorpius and Sagittarius, with the Galactic Core vaguely visible.

Below is another of my failed attempts to shoot the Milky Way in light-polluted Singapore on 23 March 2018 at the Jubilee Bridge near the Merlion Park.

Scorpius and Sagittarius above Marina Bay Sands

However, I am satisfied to have captured the Scorpius and part of the Sagittarius despite the very glaring and difficult lighting condition, and the thinly clouded sky.

Relative Position of Scorpius and Milky Way – April 2019

Scorpius and Milky Way at Maragang Hill, Mesilou, Kundasang

During a recent Hunt for Sabah Milky Way trip, I climbed up Maragang Hill to shoot the rise of the Milky Way above the sea of cloud. The sky was exceptional clear and the view at the top was simply stunning. The animated GIF above shows the relative position of Scorpius and the Galactic Core of the Milky Way.

Stargazing with the Bajau Laut in Lahad Datu

Stargazing with the Bajau Laut in Lahad Datu

In 2017, I came across a documentary, Aerial Asia, on Channel NewsAsia. I was fascinated by the story on the Bajau Laut in Malaysian Borneo. That part of the video was filmed near the islands of Semporna.

First Trip to Lahad Datu in September 2017

When Sabah Stargazers announced a trip to Tebah Batang Ruby Lagoon in Lahad Datu where I could see the Milky Way and stay with the Bajau Laut community,  I was very eager to join the 3D2N Astro Trip: Lagoon of Stars.

In September 2017, I made my first trip to Lahad Datu. It was a long way from home. I have to fly from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu, stayed for a night before taking a domestic flight to Lahad Datu. Then I joined the rest of the group at Lahad Datu town to share a car to travel another 50 km eastward to Membatu Jetty where we were ferried to the stilt house built over the lagoon at the Tebah Batang.

Membatu Jetty, Lahad Datu location map

Stilt house over the lagoon at Tebah Batang, Lahad Datu

We spent the day swimming in the lagoon and snorkelling at the nearby coral reef. It was a very unique experience to be immersed in such unspoilt natural beauty and the warm hospitality of the Bajau Laut. My experience could be best summarised by Canadian photographer Mark Lehn’s words:

“Seeing these people and being the recipient of their kindness really made me appreciate some of the more simple things in life and the connection between people and our environment.” —Mark Lehn

To find out more about Mark Lehn’s photos on Bajua Laut, click here.

Bajau Laut boy on a makeshift raft in Tebah Batang lagoon, Lahad Datu

Abalone farming at Tebah Batang lagoon Lahad Datu

It was already towards the end of the Summer Milky Way season, so we had a very short window of time to shoot the Milky Way in the early evening. Sunset was about 6.30pm in September and we were all set up by 6pm. However, the sky was not cooperating.

Bajau Laut stilted hut at Tebah Batang, Lahad Datu

It was cloudy but windy so I managed to capture a glimpse of the Milky Way at about 7.15pm. Then we spent the rest of the night waiting for the sky to clear.

Milky Way during the blue hour after sunset at Tebah Batang, Lahad Datu

We had more luck on the second night and I captured enough shots before sunrise to compile into a time-lapse video.

Second Trip to Lahad Datu in April 2018

It was an amazing experience staying out in the sea and seeing a dark sky with billions of stars. I liked it so much that I went to Tebah Batang again despite having to endure a long tedious journey from Singapore.

In April 2018, I followed Sabah Stargazer’s Hunt For Sabah Milkyway 2018 trip and visited Lahad Datu again. Since it’s still early in the season, the Milky Way would rise later in the night. We expected it to be visible after midnight and for clear sky.

The advantage of shooting early in the season was that we would have ample to time to get ready (maybe even took a nap) for the shoot, and the entire band of the Milky Way in view.

Light Pillar: a common sight on cloudy nights

In the early evening, it was cloudy but windy. Thanks to the cloud, I was able to capture my first shot of the light pillar phenomenon.

Light Pillar at Tebah Batang lagoon, Lahad Datu

I guessed those vertical streaks of light were caused by the distant commercial fishing boats flood lights. Afterwards, I was told this light pillar phenomenon is quite common at Tebah Batang lagoon.

The Milky Way Arch

The sky clear up in the early hours of the morning and I finally got a shot of the Milky Way arch. It would have been a better photo without those glaring flood lights in the horizon!

The Milky Way Arch at Tebah Batang lagoon, Lahad Datu

The weather was not as good as the first night. The Milky Way was partially covered by the passing cloud and I was feeling disappointed so I decided to go to bed at 2am.

The Milky Way partially covered by passing cloud at Tebah Batang lagoon, Lahad Datu

The Lagoon of Stars

At about 4am, I was woken up by a commotion caused by the power generator failure – blackout!

Suddenly the entire place became very dark and I could see a lot more stars. Even the Milky Way was visible to the naked eyes! My first time actually seeing the billions of stars and it was an exhilarating moment.

Milky Way, meteor and airplane light trails at Tebah Batang lagoon, Lahad Datu

Tebah Batang Ruby Lagoon is indeed the Lagoon of Stars!

Stargazing in Sabah

If you’re interested to visit Sabah to stargaze and hunt for the Milky Way but do not wish to travel all the way to Lahad Datu then check out this Stargazing & Milky Way in Sabah itinerary that includes proper accommodation and does not require camping. This is an interesting itinerary because you’ll be able to see the dark skies at the beach(Tempurung Golden Beach Resort), in the mountain(Hounon Ridge Farmstay) and next to a river(Tambatuon Homestead)!