Few activities in life are as simultaneously soothing and invigorating as gazing up at the night sky. Whether it’s the brilliant sight of the Full Moon or the countless radiant stars on a dark night, the view of the sky after sunset has been a source of enchantment and inspiration to our species for tens of thousands of years.
For some people, the occasional glance up at the night sky is not enough to feed the astronomical fix, which is why there’s a thriving worldwide community of skywatchers and astrophotographers encompassing all types of skill levels, budgets, and backgrounds. As the Covid-19 pandemic has left people stuck at home, often without work, there has been a surge of interest in these nocturnal hobbies.
“I’ve seen a lot of telescopes online are sold out, so I think a lot of people have gone and bought them,” said Stacey Downton, a clinical technologist who moonlights as an astrophotographer and posts online as “AstroStace,” in a call. “That can only be a good thing and I hope that their enthusiasm continues as we get back to normal, though that is going to take a while.”
While astrophotographers are among the many people who have had their normal professional activities upended by the pandemic—resulting in cancelled lectures, workshops, and documentaries—these lockdowns have also left them with more time to develop their craft, and to invite newcomers into the community.
“Once the lockdown started hitting everybody all over the world, I wanted to shift the focus of my content to inspire people who are stuck at home to still enjoy the night sky, even if they live in a light-polluted area,” said astrophotographer Alyn Wallace in an email. “Forcing people to stay indoors will only encourage them to look out and the night sky is a great infinite source of solace.”
Everybody, including people with hectic schedules, such as the essential workers keeping our society afloat at the moment, can find some benefit in the peace conferred by the occasional stargazing or astrophotography session.
“I feel peace, enjoyment, and eternity under the starry sky,” he added. “Exploring the stars is not only about science. It leads you to a life of adventures. It becomes a lifestyle. Like the explorers of new worlds you would be gifted by unique experiences to share with others.”
To help you get better acquainted with the night sky, we spoke to astrophotographers all around the world who’ve taken some amazing at-home astronomy photos about how to capture stunning images of the cosmos wherever you are and on any budget.
Skywatching in a locked-down city
You can become a seasoned skywatcher from anywhere on Earth, though every location has advantages and disadvantages. The most breathtaking views of the night sky tend to be in remote rural areas where there is minimal light pollution, but these places can be a hassle to get to on a regular basis if you live in a metropolitan area.
While the glare of city lights typically outshines all but the brightest stars, the objects within our solar system are visible to most city skywatchers. These shots won’t contain the same level of astronomical detail you might get from a dark rural area. On the flipside, urban photographers have easy access to monuments, skylines, and all kinds of other interesting foreground scenes to create a captivating shot
The Moon is the easiest target for a beginner to shoot, but it will still take time and experimentation to get your images right.
“The New Moon in the evening sky above western horizon or the rising or setting Full Moon are some of the most beautiful celestial scenes, which can be seen and photographed from almost anywhere,” said Tafreshi. “It's not dependent on dark sky and it's a photo opportunity even from most light-polluted metropolitan areas. But reaching the right exposure, and focal length, and finding an alignment with a foreground landmark needs practice and planning.”
At first, you might want to practice with a smartphone or DSLR camera, then experiment with stacking and enhancing your images (Wallace has a video tutorial with some suggestions on this topic). You can fiddle with exposures and focal lengths, as suggested by Tafreshi, until you find a mix you like.
Planets are also accessible targets to photograph if you are located in a city. If you are not sure where our neighboring planets are in the night sky, stargazing apps such as Stellarium, Sky Map, or Sky Guide can orient you to their positions at any given time.
Christopher Go, an astrophotographer based in Cebu City, Philippines, has decades of experience imaging planets and has amassed a particularly stunning portfolio of shots of the solar system’s gaseous worlds.
“Here in my location, I am limited to imaging planets because of severe light pollution in my city,” Go said in an email. “But the atmospheric condition here is ideal for imaging planets. I enjoy monitoring planets, especially Jupiter and Saturn, because they are very active planets.”
Go’s talent is the result of decades of astrophotographical experience as well as specialized equipment. He takes pictures with a QHY290M camera using a Celestron C14 telescope on top of an AP900GTO mount, a set-up that totals several thousands dollars.
“I work with professional planetary scientists as they need my data to learn more about these planets and to support spacecrafts like NASA's Juno and Cassini spacecrafts,” he added. “Planetary imaging is one of hobbies where one could contribute to real science.”
If you’re a beginner using a smartphone or DSLR camera, you should not expect to capture planetary shots with anywhere near this level of detail. However, once you start getting a feel for the hobby, you might find yourself budgeting for more sophisticated cameras, or even investing in a telescope.
In addition to imaging the Moon and planets, many astrophotographers have learned to take gorgeous deep space pictures, even in places with intense light pollution. Downton, who lives in Birmingham, England, has adapted to her city’s skyglow by using special filters that can be placed over a camera lens—a topic she delves into in the below tutorial on her AstroStace channel:
Every astrophotographer has their own individual preferences when it comes to their equipment, and it can take many years for hobbyists—and even professionals—to find the right match for their regions, budgets, and interests. Once you’ve captured the raw images, there are also a host of different ways to process, stack, and customize the pictures to create the astronomical scene you want.
“It takes over your life,” Downton said. “I’ve got equipment all around the house.” (If you don’t believe her, check out all the videos she has made about her skywatching gear).
“It becomes an obsession—chasing after the perfect astrophotography picture,” she continued. “That said, there’s ways to get into astrophotography without absolutely emptying your bank balance. That’s what I’m all about: I want to get people into it that wouldn’t necessarily think they could do it.”
Parshati Patel, an astrophysicist and astrophotographer, expressed a similar sentiment. “The neat thing about astrophotography is that you can do it at a variety of levels,” said Patel in a call. “When I started, I just had my DSLR, a kit lens that comes with it, and a really cheap $20-30 tripod. With that, I could actually take some decent Milky Way shots, as well as do star trails.”
Shots in the dark
You can take fantastic pictures of the Moon and planets from cities, but to image stars, the Milky Way, nebulae, and other objects beyond the solar system, you ideally want to find a dark area away from light pollution—including glare from the Moon, in some cases.
“It’s good to at least get to the edge of a city,” said Patel, who is based in London, Ontario, in Canada. “You also need to make sure there is no Moon in the sky at that time, so you have the darkest possible skies. The moonlight can actually blur your vision and the light can wash off whatever you’re trying to take in your picture.”
The first few times you go stargazing, you might also want to consider experiencing the night sky without any special equipment.
“The human eye is one of the most incredible optical devices that we know of, so it's always good to start with basic naked eye observations,” Wallace said. “When you are in a dark place you need to give your eyes at least 20-30 minutes to develop your biological night vision though, so try not to look at anything bright and turn your smartphone screen as low as it can go. After that you may want to pick up a cheap pair of binoculars and extend the ability of your eyes.”
Once you feel familiar enough with the sky to start taking pictures (you can use a DSLR or smartphone camera for this), you might want to invest in a tripod so that you can capture the longer exposures required for star trails, which are the bright looping patterns that show stellar motion across the skies.
The Milky Way is also a good beginner’s target for unspoiled moonless skies, and it has become significantly easier to photograph in recent decades, as digital cameras have become more affordable.
“When I started this as a teenager in the early 1990s, there was a very small astrophotography community world-wide,” Tafreshi said. “But now it's a popular hobby for many, thanks to the fast developing technology of digital cameras.”
“A dream-goal, technically-channeling photo of the Milky Way with an hour exposure on film can now be achieved in less than a minute on your first night under stars with a suitable digital camera and a fast wide-angle lens,” he added.
The best opportunities to photograph the Milky Way from the Northern hemisphere occur from March to October, when this side of the planet is angled toward the core of the galaxy. Star charts and astronomy apps can help you figure out where and when the Milky Way will appear in your local skies.
“It requires a lot of pre-planning in many ways,” Patel said. “Making sure that there is no Moon, that the galaxy is oriented in a certain way that you would like, along with the foreground, and also making sure that there are clear skies.”
“Sometimes I drive an hour, or an hour and a half, to find clear skies or even the kind of location I might want,” she added.
This quest for the perfect shot is part of the thrill of astrophotography, and every person we interviewed for this article let it pull them in different directions.
“I like deep space nebulas—the big gassy dusty areas of space,” Downton said. “It’s almost like taking pictures of clouds because that’s what they look like—billowing gas and dust in space.”
“I love the uncertainty of a Northern Lights hunt, or the familiarity of the Milky Way core on a summer's evening,” Wallace said. “And then you have rare events like solar eclipses that can really take your breath away.” (Note: Do not attempt to photograph the Sun or solar eclipses as a beginner, as it can damage your equipment or your eyes).
This dedication and focus to capturing the ideal shot—and the rush that comes with successfully snagging it—is a big part of astrophotography’s appeal.
This hobby can also be as social or as solitary as you want, depending on your own comfort zone, which is helpful in the middle of a pandemic that has required long periods of quarantine and lockdown.
Patel noted that she first got into astrophotography by attending stargazing parties, and that she still prefers to go out to take her pictures in a group for safety and social reasons. As a result of social distancing rules, she had to postpone some of her night sessions, though she has recently been able to resume her astrophotography now that those measures have been slightly relaxed in Ontario. Indeed, space photography, especially in rural or less built-up areas, can be easily done outside in a small group while keeping six or more feet apart.
While the pandemic has scuttled travel plans and professional opportunities for many astrophotographers, it has left many of them with more time to devote to their nocturnal sessions.
“We still aren't allowed to travel more than five miles so I'm stuck in a bit of a light-polluted town which sucks, but I've still been capturing the Moon and the planets and we had a couple of meteor showers too,” Wallace said. “It's also been a great time to finish work on my forthcoming book Photographing the Night Sky. Without the distractions of everything else I've really been able to focus on it.”
Likewise, the pandemic has provided Go with more time to focus on his shots of the planets, which he catalogs on his website. He also noted that being part of the astrophotography network has helped people cope with the many pressures of the pandemic.
“The Covid-19 lockdown has indeed created serious problems, not just health but also psychological problems,” Go said. “Being part of a global community of planetary imagers and coordinating our data with professional astronomers gives us a motivation that we are contributing to the advancement of our understanding of the planets.”
Beyond the perfect sky shot
Humans may have evolved to work and play in the full light of the Sun, but our diurnal nature has never stopped us from staying up late to gaze at the entrancing spectacles of the night sky.
Each astrophotographer we spoke to for this article got hooked on this pursuit in different ways: Go witnessed the 1986 pass of Halley’s Comet and he’s been skywatching ever since. For Downton, the obsession budded from an adolescent love of Star Trek. Wallace has been stargazing since his childhood under the dark skies of Wales. When Patel’s aunt gifted her a telescope as a teenager, it opened a new universe up to her. Tafreshi traces his passion back to an evening in 1991, when he looked at the Moon through a telescope from his family’s Tehran apartment, an experience that altered the trajectory of his life.
The paths to joining this community of skywatchers are as countless as the stars at night. With so many people stuck at home, there has been a rush of interest in activities like gardening, bread-baking, or birding—those simple pursuits that have been shared by countless generations of humans. Stargazing naturally fits into that mix, so long as you don’t mind setting out for some deliberately sleepless nights.
“The sky is always there,” said Downton. “It’s constant—apart from when stars blow up, obviously. But it is a comfort. While Covid has been going on, I’ve gone outside and just thought: Oh wow, Look at the stars and sky tonight. It’s amazing. I wonder how many other people are looking up as well.”
Though Covid-19 has resulted in trauma and a disruption of daily life for many, it may also spark a keener sense of the transient nature of our brief time on this planet, the importance of what we make of it, and our place in the wider universe.
“I definitely see how the cosmic perspective resonates with many people today,” Tafreshi said. “We are in the beginning of the Anthropocene era, when humans dominate the planet with significant impact on Earth's geology, ecosystems, and climate. But the Covid-19 pandemic showed us how fragile is our dominance, how an insignificant microscopic entity can take control over our civilization.”
While astrophotography obviously followed the invention of modern cameras, the human love of the night sky also manifested itself in ancient star maps, artistic depictions, and stories passed down from stargazers across the millennia. In this way, the night sky connects us not only to people of the past, but people of the present and future.
“Nightscape images show the real hidden beauties of night,” Tafreshi said. “It is perhaps best described by this Persian proverb: ‘Night hides a world, but reveals a universe.’”
This article originally appeared on VICE US.