Shooting for the stars: capturing the beauty of science through astrophotography

Shooting for the stars

"The greatest scientists are artists as well" – Albert Einstein

Robert Smith’s ‘Iridis’, Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year Robotic Scope Winner (2016). This composite of two images compares slit-less spectroscopy of two well-known planetary nebulae, NGC 6543 (Cat's Eye Nebula) at the top and NGC 6720 (M57 Ring Nebula) below.

When thinking about the types of photographs that capture the beauty of science, a stunning landscape or an animal in its natural habitat might come to mind. But when it comes to images from telescopes, we might not immediately consider these as anything more than the collection of scientific data. Beyond their significance in helping us to discover more about our universe, the images of galaxies, planets and stars are also appreciated purely for aesthetic reasons. For many amateur and professional astrophotographers capturing the shapes and colours of the universe is just as important as capturing scientific data. In fact, most astronomical images for general viewing have been modified from their original form. An astrophotographer’s goal in this case is to bring out the best of the image – to find the art within the science.

Crab Nebula

The Crab Nebula is a supernova remnant, the expanding cloud of gas and dust from a catastrophically exploding star. Chinese astronomers witnessed this explosion in 1054 and we still see the remnant cloud now. To the human eye, it would be faint pink. Scientific instruments do not necessarily ‘see’ colours the same way as our eyes and allow astronomers to bring out details that a true colour image might not reveal.

Thors Helmet

Thor’s Helmet is a planetary nebula. Nothing to do with planets, it is actually a shell of gas being thrown off from an old star towards the end of its life cycle. Planetary nebulae are wonderfully varied in shape and colour. This image was originally obtained with the Liverpool Telescope for BBC Sky At Night.

Robert Smith, creator of the "Iridis" image which won the Robotic Scope Special Prize at the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, sums up the concept of science as art/art as science:

“We often hear about the idea of representing scientific data in an appealing way as an expression of art, but why not look at it the other way around; ‘art as science’? Astrophotography is not just a matter of making science look pretty, it shows us that beauty actually is science. The winners of this competition were obviously selected because they were beautiful, striking or interesting, but each and every one is also an expression of astrophysical processes and could be the basis of a science seminar in their own right. It is physics that creates that beauty. Looking at the swirling gas in a nebula or the aurorae, you are literally seeing maths and physics.”

Robert is an astronomer at the Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) at LJMU and captured the award-winning image from ARI’s very own Liverpool Telescope. As the world’s largest fully robotic telescope, the Liverpool Telescope is responsible for a wide range of images which, in addition to their obvious importance scientifically, are also interesting and beautiful as pieces of art in their own right.


Just as horses are a perennial favourite subject in classical art, the Horsehead Nebula is a popular target for astrophotography, maybe because it is so remarkably reminiscent of a real horse or knight chess piece. The horse’s head is really an opaque dust cloud over thirty trillion kilometers across, shading our view of the bright stars hiding behind it. This image was originally obtained with the Liverpool Telescope by BBC Sky At Night for use in one of their broadcasts.


It is often said that dawn and dusk make the best landscape photographs on Earth, the same is true on the Moon. When you look at that part of surface where the Sun is just rising or setting, the mountains, plains and valleys leap out and create images that evoke landscapes here on Earth. An enormous wealth of detail is visible through binoculars, try watching how the surface seems to change at different phases.

Astronomers were among the first to embrace photography, with the first images of the sun captured on daguerreotypes, an early photographic imaging process, in the 1840s.

Users of the Liverpool Telescope not only include researchers at LJMU but because it is remotely operated, it is available to astronomers from around the world. Schools and colleges across the UK and Ireland also get involved in capturing astronomical images. As a part of ARI’s educational outreach programmes, the National Schools’ Observatory (NSO) makes it possible for schoolchildren to study the night sky for themselves via the Telescope. Almost 4,000 schools have already participated with students making well over 100,000 astronomical observations from the classroom. A couple examples of the photos from NSO can be found on this page, but feel free to take a look at more on the NSO website.

How do you photograph a night sky?

Make sure it’s a clear night and find a place as far away from light pollution as you can. With a manual camera, try setting 25 second exposure, f/2.8, ISO 1600 (you can experiment with these settings). You’ll need a tripod to keep your camera stable during the exposure. Modern smartphones can produce impressive results as well. There are free apps available to download that automatically take a series of short exposures for you and add them together to create a long night-time photo.

If you have access to a telescope, you can hold your smartphone up to the eyepiece of the telescope and take your shot, this is known as afocal photography – where the lens takes the place of the human eye.

There are plenty of tips for getting started in astrophotography, just do a search online and you’ll be exposed to a wealth of information.

We want to see your shots. Feel free to send your photos to and we’ll include them in an upcoming feature. Take a look at the BBC’s Sky at Night website for inspiration, it includes a gallery of images sent in from the public.

Dumbbell Nebula

Castell Alun High School captured the Messier 27 through the NSO. One of the best planetary nebulae to observe on the NSO, it almost fills the field of view, providing a spectacular image with vast detail. The image was produced by combining observations in the blue, visual and red filters using NSO’s 3-colour image tool.

Eagle Nebula

The Eagle Nebula and extensive surrounding gas clouds, observed by the NSO. The slightly fanciful “eagle” is flying in from the left, bathed in the pink light emitted by hydrogen gas. Scientific analysis normally focuses in on the detailed physics of new stars being born in the “eagle” structure itself, but this wide, contextual, tranquil view belies the violent star formation processes going on.

If you want to take your interest in astronomy further why not consider studying astrophysics at LJMU?


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