Astronomy Photography

After many years of photography (I started taking pictures seriously back in the mid eighties) I started to point my camera upwards to the heavens around 2009. I'd try, mostly in vain, to take good photos of the moon or maybe try long exposures of stars to get those trailing effects. It was mainly just for fun, as I did not really have a clue about what I was looking at, nor how to get a half decent picture, but it was fun all the same.

This all changed in 2010 after I watched the BBC Stargazing Live show, which aired the first series on January of that year. It was something very different too what I had been used to before. Up until that point I had watched all the Brian Cox Wonders series's, and also watched The Sky at Night astronomy program, which was only on once a month and tended to be quite late at that, meaning I missed quite a few. It was the interactive nature of Stargazing Live that gave me the impetus to go out and try to photograph some of the things highlighted in the show, as they featured viewers images on each show.

Later in 2010 I took the next step by joining my local astronomy society BADAS, which is short for Blackpool and District Astronomical Society. It was joining BADAS that really launched me from being a 'just for fun' astrophotographer into something a bit more serious, although it did not happen right away. There were many years of learning ahead, but the many star parties the society organised that I attended over those first few years were probably the biggest factor in helping me to familiarise myself with the night skies, so that instead of just shooting blind, now I had some idea about what I was photographing & how to get a better image of it.

One of my favourite subjects to photograph were star trails, which are created by using either one long exposure (mainly film days), or by taking a series of exposures of the stars to then stack them using software to get the same effect. Stacking is now the standard way to create star trail photographs, unlike in the film days when it was impossible, and one thus had to just open the shutter for a long time, but this was very limited by light pollution causing the image to be overexposed. The night sky can be very bright, especially in towns & cities where light pollution is a limiting factor on what can be photographed. My early images were not always focussed correctly, although each time I went out I learned from my mistakes. At least I was getting used to how to find the North Star Polaris, so I could compose a shot like below, where I wanted Polaris to be above this church, so that the stars would create circular trails around it.

As I progressed, I got better at star trails. I not only learned how to take them better, but I also learned how the stars move through the sky from taking star trails facing different directions.

The shot below is a star trail captured looking southwest from St Annes. I would often use a landmark in the foreground, such as the jetty in this image. Note how the stars create very different trails to the image above, where I was facing north.

The image below is a one hour star trail captured during one of the astronomy society star parties

Below is a 2 hour star trail captured in the Lake District. The blue sky was caused by an almost full moon which was present.

My keen interest in capturing better photos of the night sky eventually led me to seek out dark skies further afield. Below are some shots from an early trip to Tenerife, starting with a star trail above Teide National Park followed by a shot of the Milky Way from the same location. You may notice that Polaris, the North Star, is much lower down in the sky from Tenerife. This is because the latitude is 28º North compared with 53º North where I live in UK.

The Milky Way is an amazing sight from Teide National Park in Tenerife, mainly due to the altitude of the park. It is around 2000 metres above sea level, which gets us above most of the low level haze & light pollution from the resorts. The shot below shows an image of the Milky Way taken early evening in December. Some light pollution is visible lower left. The image was shot using a 10.5mm fisheye lens to capture an extremely wide area of sky.

The bright star Canopus peeks out from behind the rock at the bottom of the image below, directly below Orion, which appears high in the sky over Tenerife. This star cannot be seen from the UK.

My interest in astronomy photography was starting to have a bearing on where I went on holiday. I started to book holidays in far off places where I knew I had a better chance of avoiding light pollution, like Tenerife, but also I would time the trips to avoid the moon. If I wanted to have the best chance of photographing the Milky Way wherever I went, I had to make sure the moon would not be around.

In late 2013 I visited South Africa. I'd learned all about the night sky that could be seen from south of the equator, and now was my chance to see it for myself. After a short stay in Cape Town we made our way up to the Northern Cape and the very small town of Sutherland. This is the town near where the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) is situated, so I knew it would be a very dark place, ideal for seeing the southern night skies I had heard so much about.

Below: Me outside the large telescope.

The dark skies of Sutherland did not disappoint. Here are some of the sights I captured starting with the Southern Cross, a well known constellation in the southern hemisphere. The Southern Cross appears on the flags of Australia, New Zealand and Brazil.

In the image below, the Southern Cross can be seen lower left. To the right of the cross is a dark patch known as the coal sack nebula.

Below is an image of the Southern Cross as it was skirting the horizon. The stars in the southern hemisphere appear to rotate clockwise around the southern pole, as opposed to anti-clockwise around Polaris in the northern hemisphere. On another note, there is no bright pole star to mark the southern pole, like Polaris.

Below is a wide shot of the Milky Way above Sutherland in South Africa. There are a couple of objects which stand out in the top right hand corner. These are the Magellanic Clouds. These two satellite galaxies of our Milky Way are only easily visible south of the equator, although it is possible to see them from places like southern Mexico or Cape Verde, which are north of the equator, but only at certain times of the year. From the location in Sutherland South Africa, the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds are circumpolar, meaning they are always visible at night.

This is a selfie of me looking up towards the two Magellanic Clouds. The bright star lower left is Canopus, which I mentioned could be seen from Tenerife earlier.

It wasn't until August of 2014 that I got my first decent view of the galactic core region of the Milky Way. This was despite all my trips to USA, Tenerife and South Africa. It was all down to timing and a bit of luck with the weather. August is probably the best month of the year to see the brighter part of the Milky Way in UK as it rises high in the sky, and also we have the darker nights. Although we can also see the galactic core earlier in the year, in the UK we can suffer with twilight from May through to July, so the skies do not get completely dark. On the south coast, twilight is less of a problem than further north, so it is much easier to photograph the Milky Way in the middle of summer from southern UK than it is in the north.

In 2018 I returned to Cornwall with a bit more experience and captured the following shots from Lizard Point, which is the most southerly part of the UK mainland. It also happens to be incredibly dark due to being so far away from major towns whilst also looking over the English Channel.

The image below shows a 220º panorama of the Milky Way which I captured at 4am in April whilst the galactic plane of the Milky Way was rising low in the sky. I had to time the photograph so I could capture the plane of the Milky Way at a decent height for a panorama, and before the sky started to brighten with dawn twilight.

Lizard Point Milky Way Panorama

The image below is one I captured before the panorama above. This is a composited image of two frames, one captured using a tracking mount to freeze the movement of the stars. The ramp & building in the foreground frame was captured with the tracking mount turned off. I then combined the two images in Photoshop. The detail in the Milky Way looks much clearer than it would if the shot was not tracked. This is due to the sensor of the camera picking up more photons on the same pixels, rather than the smearing that happens on a long exposure that is not tracked due to the movement of the stars.

Lizard Boat Ramp & Milky Way

Fast forward to 2018 and this was the year first started arranging Milky Way workshops at various places in the UK. These proved very popular, although I only ran them at short notice, when I was confident the weather would be decent for astronomy photography.