How an Astrophotographer Takes Stunning Photos of Space

Astrophotography expeditions are a metaphysical journey

South Africa, where Jesionkiewicz captured “The Creation of The Cosmos”.

Adam Jesionkiewicz / Business Insider Polska

Unfortunately, you won’t see the nebula around this end of the planet. It’s in the southern sky so in order to see it, you’d have to go to somewhere like South Africa.

“I went to a remote area a few hundred kilometers north of Cape Town,” explained Jesionkiewicz. “There was nothing there, except a few animals that would approach the farm where we were staying. It’s becoming more of a phenomenon in Africa to find plaques inscribed with ‘Stargazing’.”

Stargazing tourism has actually become quite an important part of the economy in certain areas.

If you see a signpost saying “Stargazing”, it means the farm owner probably has a small observatory with a retractable roof, a simple telescope, and will offer visitors services to look at the sky.

However, the sky there is so unpolluted and dark that you don’t even need a telescope.

“I knew what was in the image before I pressed the shutter,” explained Jesionkiewicz. “It was entirely intended. There are no ‘accidental decisions’ or serendipitous shots in astrophotography. You have to prepare scrupulously, plan out your sessions, and you have to choose a period when the objects will be as visible and as well-positioned as possible.”

According to the photographer, the higher the stars are in the sky, the better the parameters.

“The logic is similar to taking a photograph of something at the bottom of a pool, in that the atmosphere is a bit like water,” he explained. “The more narrow the angle you choose, the more clearly you can see what’s happening at the bottom of the pool.”

Likewise, the more direct an object is above you or the higher it is overhead, the better the resolution you’ll get and the less blurred the end image.

If you were to try and capture the same image from a few degrees above the horizon, you’d see no stars; only haze.

You also have to take into account the moon’s phases — you can’t really photograph properly when it’s in the sky. The contrast is dramatically reduced. You really do have to plan a photography session meticulously carefully.

This photograph is actually composed of around 30 “mini-shots” of around 10 minutes each.

When you take a picture during the day with your camera, the shutter speed is probably around one hundredth of a second. As long as you have enough light, that’s enough to get a decent shot. Much less light from space reaches us here on Earth, especially when from objects thousands of light years away.

In order for a photo like “The Creation of The Cosmos” to work, the right number of photons have to fall into the matrix, which is specially cooled. The camera’s matrix isn’t the kind of matrix you’d find in a traditional camera; so few photons reach you, that you have to set up very long exposures, as you wouldn’t be able to register enough in just 10 minutes.

Then there’s also the problem Earth rotating and the relative movement of stars. You have to adjust and correct the equipment, using a special “parallactic head” that tracks the stars’ movement — and then there’s another problem, because at longer focal lengths, even the tiniest movement will create blur. You have to keep the equipment in a perfectly still position for hours.

“For this particular image, the exposure lasted for around six to seven hours,” explained Jesionkiewicz. “Everything is done digitally using a computer, so you don’t have to sit and twiddle around with your settings for seven hours. You can look at the sky, think, read — this kind of trip is, only in part, about photography. To a large extent it’s a metaphysical journey.”

“There’s nothing to stop anyone doing this, really,” said the photographer. “You pack your bags and drive. It’s easy. I work within a budget and I wouldn’t exactly say I rack up unmanageable expenses. To go on an excursion like this in the wilderness of South Africa, you’re looking at around $1,500 for a fortnight or so. Of course, I’m not including photographic equipment in that figure but, as I’ve mentioned, there are already telescopes out there.”

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