We got talking with Ajay Talwar who has 28 years of experience in astophotography and is a TWAN member from India. To this day, his enthusiasm continues to multiply when it comes to planning photographs that combine both terrestrial and celestial objects.
Get to know the man behind the lens!
Is astrophotography a specialised field or anyone can do sky photography?
Anyone can do astrophotography. It may be a specialised field but it can be easily mastered. It is not different from normal daytime photography.
Which cameras and lenses are suitable for astrophotography?
Any camera that can be kept open for long duration is suitable for astrophotography. Digital SLR cameras are particularly suitable for astrophotography. The benefit of a DSLR camera is that it can be adapted to any kind of astrophotography. Attach a lens and you are ready to shoot a nightscape. Attach the camera body to a telescope and you are ready to shoot deep sky photography. You can even shoot videos through DSLR cameras for pursuing high resolution planetary photography and capture fine details on the surface of planets and Moon. All kind of lenses are suitable although prime lenses are preferable. Nightscapes need wide angle lenses; all sky images need fish eye lenses; deep sky photography needs longer lenses such as 100-600mm.
What is Deep Sky Photography?
When you capture something in the sky that is not normally seen with naked eyes, that is called Deep Sky Photography. With photography you can routinely capture details that are not visible with telescopes and even large telescopes. It is wonderful that with a small telescope you could capture faint details, which you possibly will not be able to see even with a large telescope and your eyes. We can take Andromeda Galaxy as an example. Andromeda galaxy is visible with the naked eyes from a dark location as a small fuzzy object in the sky. If you photograph it even with a simple camera and lens, you realise that it is quite large, as large as six full moons lined up end to end. Even if you viewed through a large telescope all you would see is the nucleus of the Andromeda galaxy.
Deep sky photographers wade through several catalogues and find their targets. One of the most famous catalogue is the Messier’s Catalogue which contains 110 celestial objects. Another one is the Caldwell Catalogue containing 109 objects. The Herschel Catalogue contains 400 deep sky objects. There are various kinds of objects in these catalogues such as Star Clusters, Globular Clusters, Nebulae, Dark Nebulae, Galaxies and Supernova Remnants. Some of the targets are large spanning several degrees in the sky, these would require relatively small focal length such as 100-200mm lens. On the other hand there are deep sky objects such as Ring Nebula, Black Eye Galaxy which are apparently small and require long focal length such as 1000-2000mm telescopes to image.
How is deep sky photography different from a normal photography? Is there specialized equipment used?
The secret to deep sky photography is long exposure. With longer exposures even the feeble, faint light from the deep sky objects accumulates on the camera sensor and can be discerned. In daylight photography, a normal exposure would be less than a second, but in deep sky astrophotography sometimes the exposures run into 10 minutes or even longer. Long exposure also brings along its own problems. We never feel it but the Earth is rotating quite fast, once in 24 hours, and if we want to photograph something that’s off the Earth, we need to counteract this rotation. Astrophotographers use an “Equatorial Mount” for this purpose. One axis of this mount becomes parallel to that of Earth and the mount moves at a speed of 1 revolution per day, same as the Earth but in opposite direction. And that is how we make the Earth vanish for Deep Sky Photography.
What all equipment is needed for Sky Photography?
Astrophotographers aim for different kinds of astrophotography. You can do nightscapes for which a simple camera and tripod will do. If you add a small inexpensive programmable remote to your tripod & camera you can then make star trails, time lapse movies. For deep sky photography there is a huge choice and variety of equatorial mounts available. Some are portable and others are heavy duty and can be controlled using computer for accurate pointing. High Resolution planetary photography requires the maximum focal length such as 3000-5000mm telescope. As the focal length increases, you need to match it with a sturdier and vibration free mount, which can follow the celestial object precisely.
Astrophotography can be started with a minimum equipment such as a camera and tripod. The main requirement is that long exposures be possible. These days DSLR cameras are common and have become reasonably priced. Exposures of 30seconds are routinely possible with a normal DSLR. As your interest in astrophotography increases, and your style of astrophotography develops you can then go for suitable equipment to pursue your style. Mind you, some of the most famous astrophotographers, Wally Pacholka for example, just travel with their tripod, camera and simple wide angle lenses, and make some of the best known images of the night sky.
What’s the secret behind taking exceptional astrophotographs whether it is star-trail photos or non-trailed fixed-position star or constellations?
Familiarity with your equipment, perseverance and a dark location. You must practice astrophotography at every opportunity, every day. Do not wait for outings, planning to go someplace dark and far. Practice at home. You may not gain images which you can brag about, but you will gain precious and valuable experience. You will get to know your equipment intimately, when it fails and when it works. What all small pieces of equipment, cables, nuts and bolts that are essential for your kind of astrophotography. All the mistakes which you make close to home will prepare you to conduct photography at pristine, remote location. You will come back with storage cards full of stunning images.
28 years of astrophotography is a long time! Tell us when and what triggered your interest in deep sky photography?
I do remember the first instance. Although I have lost the slide, but I still remember it vividly. I had gone to a place called Nebsarai on the outskirts of Delhi. I had exposed an entire film that night in 1987. The slide film had 36 frames, but just a couple of frames had stars visible in them. The shop where I got the film developed had almost thrown the film in the bin, because he did not find the film exposed at all! There was, but one frame, which was loaded with stars, Omega Centauri cluster was clearly visible! I was really happy. That was my impetus, my drive to continue astrophotography till now. Over a period of time, I developed a warm relation with astrophotography. As the results got better, I wanted to do more and more of it.
To this day, the excitement has not reduced at all. I still get the thrills while planning my photographs which combine celestial and terrestrial objects. A few days back I was at Agra for shooting crescent Moon and Venus behind the Taj Mahal. To capture such an image you have to shoot from a distant location about 3.5 km away from Taj Mahal. Taj Mahal had to be clearly visible from the selected location, with no intervening cables and ugly towers. A lot of prior planning is required for such shots. A lot of scouting is also required for such shoots. I reached the location well in time and scouted several villages for the perfect location. I must say people in the villages are very helpful unlike the cities. The result makes all the effort worthwhile.
What’s been your favourite destination for deep sky photography?
The lofty heights of Himalayas are my favourite location for deep sky photography. Devasthal peak in state of Uttarakhand, Hatu Peak in the state of Himachal Pradesh provide good views of the heavens. Astrophotography requires clear blue skies, free of dust and ambient light. Although from the city you can shoot bright planets and the moon, but stars are difficult. The entire Himalayas is a good place to do astrophotography. I also frequent Binsar (Uttarakhand) or some other vehicle accessible peak in the foothills of Himalayas at every opportunity. Apart from Himalayas I have found Jaisalmer (Rajasthan), White Desert at the Great Rann of Kutch (Gujarat), to be good locations, conducive for astrophotography.
Equipment alone might not solve every challenge associated with astrophotography. Is that true?
You should first create an intimate familiarity with your equipment, use it often, even without occasion. Once you are experienced and familiar with your camera, battery, storage cards, menu settings, tripods, lenses, you go through the process of astrophotography without thinking about equipment, only then you can start thinking creatively about what you want to show. But equipment is not the only thing you need mastery on, you need a lot of patience, especially for astrophotography, extreme doggedness, to keep on photographing till you are satisfied yourself.
Would you like to join the 9th edition of Sky Photography workshop being led by Ajay Talwar this December? Then, don’t forget to sign up for it here.