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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
If you’re interested in astronomy drop in to the World Museum on 29 April for Merseyside Astronomy Day. You’ll find out about the cutting edge research being carried out by some of the world’s leading astrophysicists. Experts from LJMU and other universities as well as observatories from around the world will be on-hand to answer your questions.
And if you want to take your interest in astronomy further why not consider studying astrophysics at LJMU?