Early civilisations believed that when they looked to the night sky, they were gazing upon the existence of gods. As early as 1200 BC, the Babylonians were creating ‘star catalogues’, a practise that – in one shape or form – has continued to this day.
However, it’s only since the 1800s that we have been able to capture our skies through photography, and the practice is the perfect example of art and science colliding. While the first recorded photograph of the moon was taken in 1840, Dr Robin Catchpole – an astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge (having retired as Senior Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich) believes a more important image came some forty years later.
“To my mind there’s a crucial moment in 1882, when a bright comet was seen in the Southern Hemisphere and David Gill at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope had a local photographer come along and photograph the comet. They got some images and, to their amazement, they also imaged a lot of stars.” Until that point astronomers recorded the position of stars using micrometers at the end of telescopes, but by photographing the sky they realised that you could measure the images in the laboratory on the photographic plate. This led to extensive sky surveys which continued into the twentieth century.
Today’s photographers tend to look at the night sky for its aesthetic qualities, rather than purely scientific, but that’s not to say that they don’t play an important part in broadening our knowledge of the heavens. “In any given galaxy there’s only about one supernova [when a star explodes and comes to the end of its life] every two or three hundred years and it can outshine the hundred thousand million stars in that galaxy for a few weeks,” explains Dr Catchpole. These rare, near-earth phenomena are the perfect example of where astronomers rely on the images created by astrophotographers, rather than utilise their powerful telescopes on nearby galaxies.
Basically, we’re able to take pictures now that we couldn’t have dreamt of ten years ago.
Someone who spends plenty of time with his eyes to the sky is award-winning professional landscape photographer and Canon Ambassador, David Noton. His stunning images of the night sky are the result of many years of experience, but over his career, he’s seen the world of astrophotography open up in new and exciting ways. “The technological changes that came about with recent generations of cameras made it possible for photographers to contemplate shooting under the night sky and incorporate it into our landscapes,” he says.
It’s opened up a whole new world of astrophotography, which previously was the specialisation of astronomers with telescopes. “The kind of pictures we used to do back in the film era usually involved setting the camera up, opening the shutter, going off to the pub, having dinner, coming back several hours later and you’d find this scene of the night sky, which would have stars streaking through over the course of several hours.” David admits it was “a fun thing to do”, but the real joy of astrophotography comes in the experience of night shooting, far from anywhere, under an unpolluted sky.
Where to begin? 4 steps to celestial shooting
There’s no doubt that astrophotography is more complex than, say, portraits. There’s a level of meticulous planning and preparation required to capture the shot – and an element of luck. “It doesn't happen by accident,” says David. “You have to piece together the picture, planning where the night sky is going to be, composition, timing, everything has to be planned. But, when you’re stood out there in the darkness and you see it on the back of the camera, it’s magic.”
“You need to plan when and where the night sky is going to be at its best. You can use various apps for that, I use one called Photopills, which shows the Milky Way and where it’s going to be at different times of the night and different times of the year. For example, when I decided to shoot the Milky Way over Durdle Door [see image above], I did my research as to when it would be in the right position at night, without the moon being in the sky because the light from the moon is too bright and it takes away the impact of the sky.”
“I prayed there would be no cloud in the sky and I was lucky. It’s also quite difficult composing the picture in complete blackness. You can’t actually see what you’re photographing, which is tricky. I have to say that using the new EOS R makes things a little bit easier because you can see what you’re shooting.”
“This is difficult when you can’t see what you’re focusing on! Start doing test shots to fine tune your composition, then you need to start working with a super high ISO setting of around about 6400 or higher. I take shots with a really high angle of view to get the sky and the Milky Way arcing above me.”
“You’re limited as to how long you can hold your shutter open because you don’t want the stars appearing to streak through the sky. What we need to do is get as much light in as possible and there’s a formula for that: divide 300 by the focal length of the lens you’re using and that will give you, in seconds, the longest exposure you can use. For example, shooting with a really wide angled lens, say 16mm – 300 over 16 is around 18 seconds. That’s the longest exposure you can use.
The first time I did it, I remember thinking ‘that’s just amazing!’. At the end of the day, it’s really good fun.”Discover more of David Noton’s work on his website and some more great astrophotography tips, examples and details of the annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition at the Royal Observatory Greenwich website.