Curious about exploring the unknown universe? These seven stargazers bridge art and culture with science to bring the cosmos into the light – thanks to some glass, metal and stardust
Deep in the countryside of Colombia’s Monquirá Valley, outside the town of Villa de Leyva, lies an ancient archaeological site known as El Infiernito (Little Hell).
With long shafts and sculpted, round heads, the site’s standing stones are clearly giant rock penises. What took researchers longer to figure out was that the location likely served as an early astronomical observatory for the indigenous Muisca Indians, the stones arranged to point up at the sun, moon and stars.
Humans have always looked to the stars. For the Muisca, the star-aligned phalluses – some weighing up to ten tonnes and hauled from mountains 80 kilometres away – are thought to have been used for religious ceremonies and spiritual purification as far back as 2000BC. Others across the ages have looked up to make a wish or a prayer, or to wonder about life’s mysteries: What’s our place in the universe? Are we alone? What’s the meaning of human existence?
Photographers, too, have turned their lenses to the night skies. With ever-advancing technology and techniques, their photos expand our knowledge and provoke big questions about the universe, humanity and our own planet.
Here, seven of the world’s leading astrophotographers tell us about the stories behind their work and what impact they hope their pictures have
Photo: Anthony Million
Bettymaya Foott, US
— My favourite photo
“I grew up in a small town in Southern Utah, where the Milky Way Galaxy sprawled overhead each night. It was a formative part of my childhood, summer nights sleeping outside on the trampoline, looking up into the vast universe and contemplating our place within it. I didn’t realise this was a rare experience. Over 99% of people in the USA and Europe live under light polluted skies, unable to see our own home galaxy.
I took my first photo of the Milky Way when I was working on applications for Utah State Parks to become International Dark Sky Parks. When I clicked the shutter, waited for 20 seconds, and a sparkling image of the Milky Way galaxy smiled back at me, I was hooked. Cameras can capture more light and colour than our eyes. That beauty and wonder captivated me.
One of the favourite photos I’ve ever captured is from when I travelled up the winding dirt roads in the beautiful mountains of Southern Utah and came upon a field of yellow flowers and purple irises. I wanted to capture them alight with moonlight, framed with a background of summer mountain peaks. When I went through my photos the next morning, after camping on the side of the meadow, I was stunned to see this deer who’d wandered into the foreground of my timelapse sequence.
What I’d like my photography most to communicate is our human connection to the universe and to each other. The night sky is our ultimate uniting power. When we look up to the beauty of the vast, mysterious universe, we realise we are all humans hurtling through space on Spaceship Earth together. The labels, boundaries and divisions we create seem to melt away. We all share one sky and are one people.
Dylan O’Donnell, Australia
— My favourite photo
“During Covid lockdown, I wasn’t able to travel more than five kilometres from my house, but I have big telescopes, and with cameras I’m able to use to explore a virtually infinite cosmos. It takes me several days to expose and process a single small nebula or galaxy in the sky, and the sky keeps changing, so I never run out of incredible things to see. Astronomy isn’t limited to the night either, as you can photograph the sun or the moon and planets during the day too.
Everybody has a curious appreciation of space. It’s as universally enjoyed as a beautiful sunset or a warm blanket. I’ve become completely addicted to photographing space and ended up doing a degree in Astronomy.
The Southern Hemisphere is well-regarded for the amount of dark nebula, which are clouds that aren’t lit in typical blue or red. I’ve become very fond of these clouds and recently shot S17, the Wolf Nebula in Scorpio. The clouds themselves aren’t illuminated, so the photograph relies on the backlight from ionised hydrogen to reveal a crazy amount of detail.
My photos generate interest in science, particularly for schools and young people. For some viewers, they may serve as proof of the grandeur of creation, but for others, it’s a reminder of the vast, lonely, entropic chasm and our insignificant scale and place within it. I subscribe to the latter school of thought.
Anthony Million, France
— My favourite photo
“The night sky is a huge source of inspiration. I love how a landscape can reveal another facet once the stars, the Milky Way or even the moon is in the frame. The immensity of the universe caught up with a terrestrial foreground helps give a sense of scale to the endless starry sky.
Towards Holy Stars is an image I scheduled almost one year in advance. Last year, I found a lonely little chapel surrounded by lavender and wheat fields, and I immediately thought about doing a night shot during the blooming of the lavender with the hope of having the Milky Way rising above it. I waited almost one year. But when the Milky Way season arrived and the lavender was ‘ready’, the weather forecast wasn’t promising for several days, which made the shot impossible. Nevertheless, I decided to go up and try. The sky was full of clouds during sunset but fortunately cleared up at night. I was like a kid in front of the Christmas tree, super-excited to see the beauty of the scene and happy to ‘give birth’ to the shot I’d been dreaming of.
I like to think people can be touched by the beauty of an image I’ve created and might be more curious about our universe. If an image helps people to see the wonder of our galaxy, it makes my day.
Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn, Canada
— My favourite photo
“From a young age, when I heard about Halley’s Comet, I was so intrigued about the night sky. Space is so vast and filled with mystery. When I look up at the stars, nebulae and galaxies, I wonder what it would be like to travel to them. The best way I knew I could get close was by taking pictures. Instead of seeing fuzzy patches of faint light with your unaided eyes, a long exposure will pick up unimaginable detail and colour.
One of my memorable images is of Grizzly Falls in King’s Canyon National Park, California, USA. I had to face some of my fears and adapt to my surroundings, as the location has a lot of wildlife, especially bears. I heard animal sounds in the dark wooded area, which was unnerving. Also, the forest surrounding the waterfalls was so dense that the landscape I wanted to photograph was darker than I’d ever experienced. At that moment, I realised how much light we get from the stars and the sky above, which I’d previously taken for granted. A very long exposure barely captured the rocks and the waterfalls, so I had to accept the technique of artificially lighting the scene with a flashlight, something I rarely do. Above the falls, you can see the Milky Way sweeping across the sky with the stars and the glowing red hydrogen gas in deep space.
Through my images, I hope to inspire people to look up at the night sky more often and appreciate the countless objects of unimaginable size, details and colours. I also hope others will realize the need to try and protect our night sky from light pollution, so we can all enjoy it through observation and photography for many years to come.
Waheed Akhtar, Dubai
— My favourite photo
“I’ve had a love for the night sky from a young age. I used to have a point-and-shoot camera that I used on weekend trips with friends. Going out and spending the night with friends under the sky has always been the best time.
Studying the night sky is a never-ending form of addiction. There are no guesses or lucky shots in astrophotography, as you have to prepare and plan out your shooting sessions. You have to choose a time period when the night sky objects will be visible and positioned accordingly.
I took this picture in Al Razeen in Abu Dhabi, UAE, which is very close to my heart. This is one of the darkest places in the UAE, although the light pollution has started expanding into this area now as well.
Astrophotography is all about exploring the unknown universe. With my work, I try to inspire people to step outside more often and enjoy the beauty of nature and night skies. Even if you don’t take photographs, I urge people to just sit under dark skies whenever possible. It’s very peaceful and relaxing when you look at the infinite number of stars. You feel calm and find inspiration.
Marybeth Kiczenski, US
— My favourite photo
“I love photographing the stars, as it’s a window into a world beyond this Earth-bound world that’s so chaotic and violent, yet extraordinarily beautiful and seemingly timeless.
Space has been an interest of mine since I was a kid. But I always thought you needed expensive gear and fancy telescopes, so I never thought about astrophotography until three years ago. I set up my camera on a rural road in Illinois, USA, and let it run for about 15 seconds. What popped up on the screen was a crappy, out-of-focus image. But the amount of stars blew me away. I’ve been hooked since.
This image of Sundial Peak at Lake Blanche, Utah, USA is my personal favourite. Lake Blanche is a popular hiking trail just outside of Salt Lake City. Coupled with the adventure of hiking up the mountain with 40 pounds of gear, it was one of my most memorable experiences.
When people look at my work, I hope they feel the same sense of wonder and beauty that I feel standing there, that it inspires them to go out and see these places for themselves and to take better care of our home planet. I also hope to bring awareness to the issue of light pollution and how drastically it hinders stargazing. I’ve found most people have no idea how far-reaching light pollution is, or how far they actually have to travel to see truly dark skies.
There’s a healing power to nature, and I think this has been lost in today’s ultra-connected and ultra-hyper society. My hope is to inspire others to take a step back, slow down and enjoy the beauty of the night sky.
Thrasivoulos Panou, Greece
— My favourite photo
“While I’m photographing stars, I always have the same questions in my mind, about whether we’re alone in this universe and how it would be to travel to another planet. When I was a kid, I used to go on camping trips with my family to a beach that had very little light pollution and had the opportunity to watch the night skies, so from a young age I had many wonders in my mind about our universe.
One of my favorite night images is called Silent Night. It was taken at Potistika beach in southern Pelion in Greece. I was able to capture almost all of my favourite nature elements and almost all the night elements. I was alone on the beach and waiting for the sky to get dark, so I could capture the Milky Way over the rocky mountains and also the moon rising between them. This image is special to me because of the great memories I have from that place as a kid.
With my work, I want to show to people the beauty of our world through my lens but in a bit more of a surreal way. I also hope people take from my photography many wonders and deep questions, such as if we’re alone in the universe, how all that we see was created, and to make people think how small we are in this world, so they can be grateful for what they have and can live every moment of their life intensively. Because, in the end, this is what really matters.
For my part I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.Vincent van Gogh
What’s so good about this?
So much of modern life and culture moves at a rapid pace. Looking up at the stars is a chance to slow down, to pause, reflect, wonder. Like standing in front of the ocean, it’s an opportunity to think about the immensity of the world and the universe, and to think about life’s big questions, such as the place of a single person in the face of such enormity. Astrophotography takes us another step beyond what we can see with the human eye, providing new perspectives and demonstrating the beauty that exists if we look beyond our own planet.
Meet the writer
Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist who’s been travelling the world for 20 years reporting stories and photographing wildlife, people and places for international publications including The Guardian, BBC, The Sunday Times, New Internationalist, Wanderlust, British Journal of Photography and Digital Camera. He covers subjects ranging from wildlife and conservation to human trafficking. Graeme is also the founder of the award-winning international wildlife conservation initiative, newbig5.com. His first book, The New Big 5: A Global Photography Project For Endangered Wildlife features essays by Jane Goodall, Paula Kahumbu (Wildlife Direct), Wes Sechrest (Re:wild) and more. You can follow his work at graeme-green.com and on Instagram @graeme.green.