We are all used to seeing in the newspapers and magazines, the stunning pictures of the heavens that come down from the professional observatories, planetary space probes and the orbiting Hubble telescope. What is not always widely recognized is that with advances in telescope, digital camera capabilities, and image processing software, the amateur astronomer community is capable of producing photographs that rival them and in artistic and creative merit, often surpass them. I even do a modest bit of astrophotography myself, whenever we get a clear night here up in the Pennines…
Physicist, Astronomer and occasional guitar player Brian May provides the foreword to this wonderful collection of images, which are drawn from the shortlisted and winning photographs from the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.
A coffee-table layout book, the nearly 200 images inside are grouped into themes, following the themes of the competition. So we have Solar System, People and Space, Young photographers, Earth and Space etc. All the images are taken by amateurs, and the book starts wonderfully with Earth and Space – views of the sky over spectacular earth landscapes. My personal favourites here are David Kingham’s stunning image of the Perseid meteor shower over Snowy Range, Wyoming, and the awesome view of the aurora over northern Norway by Tommy Richardsen. Alas, when I went to Norway in 2007, the sun was quiet and there was no aurora to be seen – well, there’s always a next time!
Each picture has two captions – an introduction by the photographer themselves, a personal anecdote of how they chose and took the picture and their feelings at the time, and then an additional scientific background caption.
The Deep Sky section of the book is really the Olympics of astrophotography, and it’s here the pictures for me lift from merely beautiful to absolutely mind-blowing. To take the images of the Centaurus-A deep field, or the Fornax galaxy cluster, or the Horsehead nebula, it’s not enough to hold the camera shutter open for a few minutes – hooked up to a telescope, these comprise tens of hours of exposure time, over dozens of nights. Then dozens more nights processing them together in the digital darkroom, to create pictures that no human eye could ever see unaided, the light that set out on it’s journey to us millions of years ago.
This is followed by another lovely chapter called “People and Space” – where the photos include people in creative and original ways. So among many others we have Dinyan Fu’s image from Yunnan, China, of the Moon falling into a sea of clouds, watched by a lone silhouetted observer, looking like the last person on Earth.
The final chapter looks to the future by introducing the best work by young astrophotographers under 16 years of age, and from the showing here, the hobby is going to be in good hands long after I’ve hung my own camera up on the peg for good! This would make a great birthday or Christmas present book for anyone into photography or space.