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See stars, planets, galaxies close-up via young hobby astro-photographers

It takes time, patience, and some tech — gadgets can help adjust for solar glare and the rotation of the earth. But check those boxes and it’s possible to zoom in on deep space from urban balconies and windows. Take a look.
By Natasha Rego
UPDATED ON JUL 24, 2021 05:32 PM IST
PREMIUM
Astrophysicist Avinash Singh’s image of the North America and Pelican Nebula, taken in Uttarakhand.

For millennia, the night sky has fascinated the human race. From folk tales to poems, songs and films, its sway has not waned. Today, it’s possible to zoom in on parts of the galaxy from an average rooftop, and the newest popular quests are about capturing what one sees.

Amateur photographers across the country are training their lenses on the skies and coming away with images of the sun’s coolest spots, shadows on the moon, distant galaxies and colourful nebulas. These are images captured in high-resolution and colour, using mainly DSLRs paired with telescopes and devices that adjust for factors such as solar glare and the rotation of the Earth. Many amateur astro-photographers share, compare and discuss their work online, on closed groups and on public pages on Reddit, Instagram and Telegram, as well as offline, at amateur astronomy clubs.

In May, one such image went viral: 16-year-old Pune boy Prathamesh Jaju’s image of blue and brown swirls on the surface of the moon (from lunar mineral deposits). On a clear night, the Class 10 student was waiting for Jupiter and Saturn to rise when he was drawn by how beautiful the moon looked. With his DSLR fixed to a telescope and mounted on an equatorial tracker (to compensate for the earth’s movement), he decided to take the sharpest and most detailed image he could manage.

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He divided his view of the moon into 38 parts, and made short still videos of each magnified area, and collected over 50,000 frames. They took up 186 GB, and shooting and processing took a combined 40 hours. “All the processing almost killed my laptop,” Jaju says.

Over the next few days, using stacking software, he stacked all the frames one on the other, to achieve as much clarity as possible. He then stitched the 38 parts together, corrected for colour and published on Reddit and Instagram. The images were shared, liked, retweeted and written about in the mainstream media. They now have just under 2 lakh likes on Instagram.

Prathamesh Jaju’s viral image of the moon. The blue and brown swirls indicate mineral deposits.

But they weren’t a happy accident. In addition to the nearly two days of actual work, the moon images were the result of three years of honing his skill as a hobbyist astro-photographer. Jaju signed up with one of India’s oldest amateur astronomy clubs, Jyotirvidya Parisanstha, in Pune, at 13. He has since attended numerous “star parties”, where astronomy enthusiasts drive out of their light-polluted city together to watch, study and admire the night sky.

It fascinated him, Jaju says, what when they were shooting deep-sky objects like the Orion nebula, they were capturing them as they were thousands of years ago. “It’s mindblowing when you try to think about it.”

In the lockdown, more stargazers have turned to astro-photography, some of which can be done with basic equipment, but more significantly requires time and patience. It helps that there is a lively community to tap into for tips and technical literature, including the @astrophotography.india page on Instagram, curating the best pictures from India since 2019; and the Astrophotography India Telegram group started in January 2020.

Soumyadeep Mukherjee, 27, a linguistics research scholar at IIT-Kanpur currently back home in Kolkata, says he began to train his DSLR on the skies in the first lockdown. He tapped into the groups for tips, and found his niche. He shoots at night, but his true muse is the Sun.

Soumyadeep Mukherjee tracks the movement of sun spots, the coolest points on the burning star.

For over 200 days, with his camera fitted with a telephoto lens (commonly used in long range wildlife photography) and a solar filter, Mukherjee has been pointing and shooting. He aims to document the sun’s movement over a year, tracking the occurrence and movement of sun spots, which are the coolest regions on the burning star.

One thing the pandemic hasn’t helped with is travel, which is a big part of astrophotography. Ladakh, the Spiti valley and northern Sikkim are considered the Mecca for astro-photographers. They are Bortle 1 zones, which mean they have minimal light pollution and the darkest skies. That hasn’t dimmed enthusiasm, though. If anything, it’s made astro-photographers in India’s over-lit cities more determined.

“People began shooting the sky from their homes, and I was surprised by the quality of images they were getting,” says Nihal Amin, 26, a programme manager at an electric bike company in Bengaluru and administrator of both the Telegram and Instagram group. “The first image that surprised me came in April last year, when one of our members Sanketh Hiremat produced a highly colourful, highly detailed image of the Milky Way shot from his terrace in Bengaluru.”

Earlier, one wouldn’t have bothered to even try, Amin says, especially given that Bengaluru is a Bortle 8 zone at best. “But some of the guys are making it possible. The tech to do this was always there, it’s just that no one was doing it.”

For millennia, the night sky has fascinated the human race. From folk tales to poems, songs and films, its sway has not waned. Today, it’s possible to zoom in on parts of the galaxy from an average rooftop, and the newest popular quests are about capturing what one sees.

Amateur photographers across the country are training their lenses on the skies and coming away with images of the sun’s coolest spots, shadows on the moon, distant galaxies and colourful nebulas. These are images captured in high-resolution and colour, using mainly DSLRs paired with telescopes and devices that adjust for factors such as solar glare and the rotation of the Earth. Many amateur astro-photographers share, compare and discuss their work online, on closed groups and on public pages on Reddit, Instagram and Telegram, as well as offline, at amateur astronomy clubs.

In May, one such image went viral: 16-year-old Pune boy Prathamesh Jaju’s image of blue and brown swirls on the surface of the moon (from lunar mineral deposits). On a clear night, the Class 10 student was waiting for Jupiter and Saturn to rise when he was drawn by how beautiful the moon looked. With his DSLR fixed to a telescope and mounted on an equatorial tracker (to compensate for the earth’s movement), he decided to take the sharpest and most detailed image he could manage.

He divided his view of the moon into 38 parts, and made short still videos of each magnified area, and collected over 50,000 frames. They took up 186 GB, and shooting and processing took a combined 40 hours. “All the processing almost killed my laptop,” Jaju says.

RELATED STORIES

Over the next few days, using stacking software, he stacked all the frames one on the other, to achieve as much clarity as possible. He then stitched the 38 parts together, corrected for colour and published on Reddit and Instagram. The images were shared, liked, retweeted and written about in the mainstream media. They now have just under 2 lakh likes on Instagram.

Prathamesh Jaju’s viral image of the moon. The blue and brown swirls indicate mineral deposits.

But they weren’t a happy accident. In addition to the nearly two days of actual work, the moon images were the result of three years of honing his skill as a hobbyist astro-photographer. Jaju signed up with one of India’s oldest amateur astronomy clubs, Jyotirvidya Parisanstha, in Pune, at 13. He has since attended numerous “star parties”, where astronomy enthusiasts drive out of their light-polluted city together to watch, study and admire the night sky.

It fascinated him, Jaju says, what when they were shooting deep-sky objects like the Orion nebula, they were capturing them as they were thousands of years ago. “It’s mindblowing when you try to think about it.”

In the lockdown, more stargazers have turned to astro-photography, some of which can be done with basic equipment, but more significantly requires time and patience. It helps that there is a lively community to tap into for tips and technical literature, including the @astrophotography.india page on Instagram, curating the best pictures from India since 2019; and the Astrophotography India Telegram group started in January 2020.

Soumyadeep Mukherjee, 27, a linguistics research scholar at IIT-Kanpur currently back home in Kolkata, says he began to train his DSLR on the skies in the first lockdown. He tapped into the groups for tips, and found his niche. He shoots at night, but his true muse is the Sun.

Soumyadeep Mukherjee tracks the movement of sun spots, the coolest points on the burning star.

For over 200 days, with his camera fitted with a telephoto lens (commonly used in long range wildlife photography) and a solar filter, Mukherjee has been pointing and shooting. He aims to document the sun’s movement over a year, tracking the occurrence and movement of sun spots, which are the coolest regions on the burning star.

One thing the pandemic hasn’t helped with is travel, which is a big part of astrophotography. Ladakh, the Spiti valley and northern Sikkim are considered the Mecca for astro-photographers. They are Bortle 1 zones, which mean they have minimal light pollution and the darkest skies. That hasn’t dimmed enthusiasm, though. If anything, it’s made astro-photographers in India’s over-lit cities more determined.

“People began shooting the sky from their homes, and I was surprised by the quality of images they were getting,” says Nihal Amin, 26, a programme manager at an electric bike company in Bengaluru and administrator of both the Telegram and Instagram group. “The first image that surprised me came in April last year, when one of our members Sanketh Hiremat produced a highly colourful, highly detailed image of the Milky Way shot from his terrace in Bengaluru.”

Earlier, one wouldn’t have bothered to even try, Amin says, especially given that Bengaluru is a Bortle 8 zone at best. “But some of the guys are making it possible. The tech to do this was always there, it’s just that no one was doing it.”

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