Sky Photography, a Growing Hobby that Calls Public Attention to Night sky

By Babak A. Tafreshi* published on 2013 May 27

In many ways exploring the night sky is similar to an adventure trip to an unseen cave, or reaching the top of mountains where only few have experienced the amazing vista. It’s a challenge with the same taste of adventure. But a greater enjoyment is that when you share the experience with others, when you see your photo of an endangered wildlife or a hidden natural paradise at risk of pollution make an impact and helps with awareness of the public. From the perspective of TWAN program, the sky above us is an essential part of our nature, a heritage for us and rest of species on this planet, besides being a laboratory to explore the universe. Unfortunately with 2/3 of human population living in light polluted areas, night sky might become a forgotten part of urban life. Just consider the sky half of our night-time environment, this is not a small portion of nature to loose! The annual TWAN International Earth & Sky Photo contest is built based on these goals; to make an impact on public awareness of beauty of night sky as part of our nature and importance of preserving dark skies from increasing light pollution in our often libertine modernity.

A Growing Interest
The recently announced winners of the 4th Earth & Sky Photo Contest on Dark Skies Importance present not only the beauty of the night sky also the latest sky events, showcase emerging starscape photographers, and document current light pollution. Submitted photos were judged in two categories: Beauty of the Night Sky and Against the Lights. Each category had five winners, and over 50 other notable photos are featured in our contest video. All images were created in landscape astrophotography style combining elements of the night sky with a notable location or landmark and images were submitted during Global Astronomy Month in April 2013. According to the contest criteria about 700 submitted images from 45 countries were all taken since the beginning of 2012, a “fresh” collection of Earth & sky photography. Noted by one of our distinguished judges, David Malin, “The entries represent some of the best TWAN-style photographs ever gathered together in one place. Judging them was a significant challenge because the standard was very high although some basic faults persist. Those that caught my eye were composition and color balance.” Some other beautiful images that didn’t considered by judges were photo composites created by blending various images of different exposure and setting. While editing is essential in any style of photography specially when dealing with challenging low-light conditions, according to the contest criteria entries should be gently edited so they preserve the natural-looking sky and the originality of a photograph (compared to digital art).

The doubled number of judged images compared to last year is another sign that how public attention to night sky and the hobby of sky photography is growing. Looking at the image you notice astrophotography is not only about recording a part of the outer space. Its a life of adventures and enjoyments. But there are many challenges too. Planning is always based on ideal weather and moonlight condition. Factors such as geographic location, altitude and temperature, local topography, and light pollution must be considered in preparing for a photo shoot. Many things can go wrong with equipment in dark environment.

Notable Winners
A strong example of how natural beauty of night sky can affect people is the winner image “Crossed Destinies” by Luc Perrot from the French island Reunion (near Madagascar). The outstanding Milky Way above Indian Ocean has no touch of our modern world, either in the sky or on the land. Another winner photo is a lucky and well-done photo by Shannon Belinski of Winnipeg, Canada, where the starry sky, an aurora storm, and a streaking fireball is captured one one frame. What else do you need in a stargazing night?! We were pleased to see Shanon name among our winners. In most of my workshops around the world when I meet with dedicated and advanced TWAN-style photographers I always where are the female astrophotographers? Why there are so few doing this. Females are quite active in other fields of photography. My colleague Mike Simmons, the founder of Astronomers Without Borders organization added “This year’s contest is also notable for the presence of its first female prize winner. Perhaps Shannon or someone inspired by her success will someday become the first female member of the TWAN team. TWAN-style photography is meant to be accessible to everyone on Earth and the all-male nature of the field to date is contrary to that ideal.”

In the Against the Lights category, the Stars over Salzburg first place winner image is all beauty in the first glance but then you realize the photographer has moved away from the city to mountaintops to separate himself from light pollution. Inside the yellow light cast of the city people are no longer able to see this beauty. Light pollution is not the lights we need for our modern world. It’s the unnecessary, wrong directed, and excessive light that scatters to the sky instead of illuminating the ground. Major efforts like International Dark Sky Association also deal with a cultural background that consider darkness unsafe or a devilish nature while light is all beauty. Our images in TWAN program try to show the other side of the coin where the natural darkness is vital to nature and our excessive light is a painful disturbance.

We have another winner from Austria this year with the Summer Solstice Festival. In both 2012 and 2011 we also had Austrian photographers winning the contest. Its partly because of Alpine beauty where some of the last remaining natural starry sky in the western Europe is accessibly to photographers, as well as city lights in the mountainous valley that make an eye-catching contrast to the sky above. But also Austrian amateur astronomers has been very active in all kinds of advanced astrophotography in the recent years. They organize the Central European Deep Sky Imaging Conference every other year in Linz (next will be in March 2015, which brings together astrophotographers from around the globe.

The contest was organized by TWAN in collaboration with outreach and education group of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. While most of the judges are TWAN members we also invite experts who are handling astroimages. This year we were pleased to have NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center scientist Jerry Bonnel who as the co-editor of Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), deals with hundreds of excellent astronomical images everyday which are submitted to this globally influential astronomy webpage.

For those who want to participate in our 2014 contest I recommend that you start now. The entries will be images that are made between January 2013 to the submission month April 2014. Good Luck, and Clear skies!

A shorter edit of this note is published by Sky&Telescope.

More about the 2013 contest results

Media coverage of the 2013 contest

* Babak A. Tafreshi is a freelance photographer, science journalist, and astronomy communicator. He is founder and director of The World at Night, a board member of Astronomers Without Borders, and a contributing photographer for Sky & Telescope, the
National Geographic, and European Southern Observatory.


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