Human beings have long been fascinated by and infatuated with celestial objects and phenomena. Man has indulged the cosmos using different means from telescopes to astronomical flights.
With advanced knowledge and technology, the interest of the inhabitants of Earth has grown deeper and deeper into what lies above in the skies. Thanks to the advanced equipment and gadgets, his interest in astrophotography that allows enthusiasts to see and capture what is happening in the skies, has risen manifold.
Astrophotography is photography of astronomical objects, celestial events and areas of the night sky. The first photograph of an astronomical object (the moon) was taken in 1840, but it was not until the late 19th century that advances in technology allowed for detailed photography. Besides being able to record the details of extended objects such as the Moon, Sun, and planets, astrophotography has the ability to image objects invisible to the human eye such as dim stars, nebulae and galaxies.
Ajith Everester, an expatriate from Kerala, India, has been living in Qatar for 15 years. He started developing his photography skills in 2011. Starting as a bird photographer, he became a wildlife photographer, capturing the wildlife of Qatar – especially the desert fox.
Gradually, Ajith got interested in stars and the sky and started doing wide field astrophotography (Milky Way). For the past two years, he developed more interest in the sky and stars and became a dedicated astro-photographer, photographing the galaxies and nebulae in the deep space which are thousands and millions of light years away from the Earth.
Community recently caught up with Ajit and discussed his interest in astrophotography which involves costly equipment and gadgets.
A health and safety manager with a construction company as a professional, Ajith actually bought his first camera in 2011. “I got it to photograph my daughter. One odd day, I met Dileep Anthikad, a Doha-based wildlife photographer. He later became my mentor in photography. I pursued my love for wildlife photography for about seven years. Some of my photos capturing Qatar’s wildlife have been published in known European magazines. Though Qatar is a small country, we have 316 species of birds here. There are two species of desert fox.”
Besides the wildlife photography, Aijth has been doing sky photography. He however, got interested in astrophotography in 2017 by a stroke of luck. “Actually, my daughter wanted to have a telescope when she was in Grade VI. She was interested in seeing the planets. I also started observing stars and other celestial objects with the telescope. At the same time, I thought why not take photos of these objects. I studied about how to photograph the stars and how to handle the required equipment for one long year.”
Pursuing astrophotography does not come cheap for the man who has a regular job and has to support his family in Qatar. “In the last two years, I have spent about QR40,000 to fulfil my interest in capturing celestial objects. My real interest is photographing deep space objects and not the planets. Initially, I was inspired by exquisite deep space photos by Nasa and some world-renowned astrophotography gurus. I just love the colours out there up at the night sky. The unseen in the skies is much more beautiful that what we see on the Earth.”
Ajith does not find astrophotography an easy job. He has to face different natural and man-made challenges. “Here, in Qatar, the major challenge is urban light pollution. The cities are so illuminated that the cameras cannot have clear skies at night.
“The Bortle scale is a nine-level numeric scale that measures the night sky’s brightness of a particular location. It quantifies the astronomical observability of celestial objects and the interference caused by light pollution. John E Bortle created the scale and published it in the February 2001 edition of Sky & Telescope magazine to help amateur astronomers evaluate the darkness of an observing site, and secondarily, to compare the darkness of observing sites. The scale ranges from Class 1, the darkest skies available on Earth, through Class 9, inner-city skies. It gives several criteria for each level beyond naked-eye limiting magnitude (NELM).
“Doha city is in Class 9. Turayna is a place that is darkest in Qatar with Class 4. I have not come across a site where I can have Class 1 night view of the sky. I came across the Class 1 view in Ladakh, India.”
Ajith travels most days of a week to Mazraat Turayna — from 80 to 90 kilometres from his home — at night to capture the best possible views of the nebulas and galaxies. For one photograph, I have to expose the skies to my camera for three to four hours. When we take a normal photo, we expose the image to be captured for .40 second — the speed of one click. In astrophotography, the camera click will remain open for four to five minutes taking continuous photos. It takes hundreds of photos. We stack them together. Then, we process the photos thorough special software. I use the software PixInsight to process the photos. Any image you take will be very dark. You will find nothing in the photos. You have to retrieve the data from the file.
“I am actually doing narrow band imaging. In this, you have three kinds of filters — hydrogen filter, oxygen filter and sulphur filter. Each filter gathers one particular wave length. The filters are added separately with the camera. Filters work as lens do in the normal camera. These filters are placed in between the telescope and the camera. The other technique is called LRGB — Luminance, Red, Green and Blue — a photographic technique used in amateur astronomy for producing good quality colour photographs by combining a high-quality black-and-white image with a lower-quality colour image.”
Ajith lays stress on the importance of knowing about the object that is to be captured. “We should know what time the particular object rises in the horizon and what time it sets in. Andromeda Galaxy, for example, comes out by 8pm and sets in by 2 to 3pm. We can see the galaxy with binoculars but not with its beautiful colours. Our eyes have special filters that filter out all those colours. It is seen like a cloud.
“Another important aspect is arc angles. There are also arc minutes and arc seconds. This is special measurement in the sky that relates to how many degrees the object is above in the horizon. We can start photography when the celestial object is 25 arc angles above the horizon. Below that level, the equipment cannot capture the image of the object. There is a particular period. It is good when there is no moon.”
Ajith simply loves going out and photographing the celestial objects millions of light years away from Earth. “I love the silence of the night when I focus on certain objects. It is really splendid watching the magnificent colours of the far off objects. I feel that we (Earth) are very tiny in the universe. We are very lonely in the cosmos. I agree with an astrophysicist who once said ‘Earth is a pale blue dot in the universe’.”
Ajith’s next target is to capture Eagle Nebula. “It is called the pillars of creation. The centre of the nebula will look like three pillars. The nebulas are the birth place of stars. Unfortunately, the nebula is setting in very early nowadays. Most of the times, it is on the horizon during day time. I have to wait for a year or so to capture the nebula. Some photographers have already captured the nebula.”
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