Astronomy: Scanning The Night Skies: 2013 Astronomy Photographer Of The Year Contest Winners & New Contest for 2014
Astronomy is no longer strictly the domain of professional astronomers. Dedicated amateurs have access to relatively inexpensive but powerful telescopes and highly sensitive camera equipment that allow them also to explore and record the beauty and mystery of the night skies. Depending, of course, on the subject matter, stunning and astronomically meaningful images can also be made without the use of telescopes.
To encourage amateur astrophotography and acknowledge outstanding work being done, the Royal Observatory Greenwich, in cooperation with the BBC’s Sky at Night Magazine, has conducted its Astronomy Photographer of the Year contest since 2009. Winners of the 2013 contest in several categories—drawn from more than 1200 entries—were announced last fall. Details for the 2014 competition, which closes on April 24th, are available at www.rmg.co.uk/royal-observatory.
The 2014 winners will go on display at the Royal Observatory Greenwich on September 18, 2014. They also may be viewed after that date on www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/astronomy-photographer-of-the-year.
Details for the 2015 contest will be available at the Observatory’s site early next January.
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England, is home of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and the prime meridian line. Established by King Charles II in 1675, it is, by international decree, the official starting point for each new day, year, and millennium—at the stroke of midnight GMT as measured from the prime meridian.
Recognition in the competition is given not only to images of deep space and the solar system captured using telescopes, but to photos made with unaugmented photographic equipment. In fact, the 2013 winner and overall winner was Mark Gee (Australia) with an image entered in the Earth and Space Category. He was also a winner in the People and Space Category. Both shots were made without the use of a telescope.
Competition categories include Earth and Space, Our Solar System, Deep Space, People and Space, Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year (under 16 years of age), Sir Patrick Moore Best Newcomer Award, and Robotic Scope Image of the Year.
Cash awards range from £500 for various category winners, £250 for runners up, and £125 for highly commended. The exception is the People and Space Category for which awards are £350 for the winner and £125 for the runner up. Winner of the Sir Patrick Moore Best Newcomer Category receives £350 as does the best Robotic Scope Image. The Astronomy Photographer of the Year receives an additional £1500. (Editor’s note: As of this writing the British pound traded at about $1.62.)
The eight contest judges were drawn from multiple disciplines—astrophysics, amateur astronomy, photography, contemporary art, and science journalism.
• Earth And Space Category
Winner and Astronomy Photographer of the Year
• Our Solar System Category
• People And Space Category
• The Sir Patrick Moore Prize For Best Newcomer
By Tom Kerss, Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich
There’s a common misconception that beautiful photos of the night sky are a product of sleepless nights and big expense. While fancy equipment and ample free time may increase your chances of capturing amazing shots of the heavens, much can be achieved with the equipment most photographers already have, and a few minutes of experimentation—even if they’ve never thought about astrophotography.
The night sky is a unique low-light scene. All the usual rules apply, but each must be observed to the extreme. A tripod is essential, as exposure times will typically vary between a few seconds and a couple of minutes. Even a tripod will not deliver perfectly sharp stars unless the exposure is minimized because the sky is constantly rotating. Total compensation can be achieved only by using an equatorial tracking platform. Of course, star trails have a unique appeal and can be achieved with long exposures.
Whether you opt for equatorial tracking or not, here are several tips to help ensure dramatic images of the night sky:
1) Use a remote shutter release or timer to ensure there’s no vibration when the shot is taken.
2) Manually focus on a bright star (or the moon) using Live View and 10x zoom. Get the star to be as point-like as possible. If shooting the moon, focus on the edge—known as the limb.
3) Your lens simply won’t be able to autofocus on stars, so leave it on manual.
4) The stars are distant suns. If you want to capture their color accurately, use daylight white balance. The camera is often able to see hues of pale blue, orange, and occasionally deep red that your eye will not.
5) Shoot your images in Raw + Large JPEG. You can use the JPEG to preview and process from the Raw. Since stars are point-like, high-contrast subjects, optical aberrations in lenses are a leading factor in spoiled pictures. Many software packages can correct somewhat for these when editing in Raw.
6) If you’re taking long exposures, your camera’s sensor will become warmer than the ambient temperature. Give it time to cool down between exposures. Cooler sensors produce less noise. Controlling noise in astronomical pictures is best achieved by taking multiple exposures, but before exploring advanced techniques, give your noise reduction plug-in a chance. Modern software is very good at reducing noise, but preserving stars, even in a single exposure.
7) To minimize star trailing, use a fast wide-angle lens. Short, low-magnification exposures produce the sharpest images. A fast lens will give you more stars and a brighter image, and a wide shot will be more forgiving of drift—a star is less likely to spill over from one pixel to the next during the duration of a shot. Many of my images are made with a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 used at 11mm.
8) Exposure times are a matter of experimentation. A bright Northern Lights display can produce a stunning image in just 5 to 10 seconds. The Milky Way typically demands longer exposures—30 to 60 seconds. Meteor showers are sporadic in nature, so why not open your shutter for a few minutes on bulb and see what you get?
9) If your lens is f/4 or faster, then, in my experience, photos like the above can be achieved at ISO 400 to 800. Strive to use an ISO that keeps noise to a minimum.