By SIONNIE KELLY
Photos from the CWAS AstroFest website.
Star-gazing has amazed and fascinated human-kind for generations, with astronomers like Copernicus and Galileo not only changing the way we perceive science, but where we see ourselves situated in the universe.
Yet astronomy’s founding fathers would be most envious of what many amateur ‘astrophotographers’ can capture in the night sky with a simple digital camera these days.
Enter the AstroFest’s David Malin Awards – an initiative of the Central West Astronomical Society (CWAS), which brings together enthusiastic, amateur astronomers and photographers from across Australia and showcases their breathtaking shots of the heavens.
Entrants’ photographs are judged by renowned astrophotographer and Adjunct Professor of Scientific Photography at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), Dr David Malin.
The winning photographs and honourable mentions are then publicly displayed in the exhibition
The 2011 tour of the exhibition, Winning sky photos, has been brought to the Royal Institution of Australia’s (RiAus) Adelaide Science Exchange, after almost a year of travelling the country.
Speaking to On the Record, Chairman of the AstroFest committee and administer of the awards, John Sarkissian, says bringing award-winning astrophotography to Adelaide’s Science Exchange will hopefully add public appeal to the worlds of science and astronomy.
“The whole aim of the thing is to encourage people to do science and to be interested in it and learn from it,” he says.
“That’s why we’re not showing them in art galleries, but in planetariums and science museums… so that people can come see the pictures and while they’re there, have a look and see the other things.”
Since its inception in 2004, when the awards were held at the CSIRO Parkes Observatory Visitor’s Centre, the exhibition has slowly evolved to include other venues, such as the Sydney Observatory, Mount Stromlo Observatory and many other science museums throughout Australia.
“Over the years we’ve been trying to get it even further afield, we’ve gone to Tasmania, Adelaide, Western Australia – as many places as we can to let as many people see the exhibition as possible,” Mr Sarkissian says.
“It has just grown and it’s become a premier competition and exhibition of its kind in Australia.”
South Australians are also among this growing interest in astrophotography.
Vice President of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, Paul Haese, has been enthusiastic about space and photography since he was a child and has scored honourable mentions for his astrophotography at the last four David Malin Awards.
His most recent photographs The Return of the SEB and M42, The Orion Nebula gained honourable mentions in the 2011 awards.
Although the winning spot continues to elude him, his passion for astrophotography is evident as he describes how taking the right shot is all about patience.
“Most of this type of imaging is about luck with the atmosphere being still enough to capture sharp detail,” he says.
“Having the right equipment is part of it for sure, but still nights are what I look for and that means having a great understanding of weather charts and knowing what conditions bring.
“You can wait months for the right conditions in planetary imaging and then you have your night.”
Fellow member of the Astronomical Society of South Australia, Wayne England, says opportunities for amateur astrophotographers are plentiful.
He first began entering the David Malin Awards just for fun but soon discovered he had a natural flare for the art, winning an honourable mention for his Moonlit Red Gums piece in 2011.
“I’ve done reasonably well in a few competitions, I’ve now sold a few and also had a few published in magazines,” he says.
“Often my friends say ‘wow’ about some of my night shots because they didn’t think it was possible to take shots like that and see so much.
“This sparks their curiosity about how they were taken and what they show and I then have to explain what’s in the photo, such as the Milky Way or a comet and what they are made of.”
Dr David Malin is an honorary member of the Astronomical Society of South Australia and says he is happy that Adelaide will be experiencing the “best of the best” from the 2011 exhibition.
Dr Malin’s delight in the competition is apparent as he adds that he has enjoyed judging other people’s work and hopes his comments have helped improve their passion and skill.
“I get on well with amateurs, I like their enthusiasm and commitment, and I like to think my comments on their images and judging criteria have helped improve the standard of images over the years,” he says.
“Standard improves perceptibly every year; the number of entries rises steadily year by year and the judging gets harder every year.”
Dr Malin’s personal enthusiasm is clear when he outlines the key variations in astrophotography, when compared to regular photography.
“The difference with astronomical imaging is that the objects of interest are essentially invisible to the human eye, even with the biggest telescope,” he says.
“The camera here is acting as the detector of the faint light from the stars and galaxies as well as the recorder of an invisible, but real, scene.
“Therein lays the challenge to the photographer.”
However, Mr Sarkissian says that although astrophotography is a challenge, anyone can take part in the awards and that it is not about having the most expensive equipment.
“We’re more interested in creativity, an interesting picture and you don’t get that from buying an expensive camera, you get that because you put some thought into it and that’s what we’re more interested in,” he says.
“It always amazes me how sometimes the people who are just starting out have the more interesting photographs you see, because they’ve done something different.”
Mr Sakissian’s respect for the competition is evident as he points out that astrophotographers owe Dr Malin a great deal for developing the techniques they use today.
“David Malin in the ‘70s and ‘80s and even ‘90s, when he was developing these techniques with the large Anglo Australian telescope at Siding Spring Mountain, was doing a lot of these things in dark rooms, using photographic glass plates and so on and [it was] very time consuming,” he says.
“Nowadays these guys with their backyard telescopes and digital cameras are taking pictures that would rival anything David was doing.
“But David was the guy who developed the techniques to begin with and that they all use now, so they owe a lot to David.”
The Winning sky photographs exhibition began on Tuesday 5 June and will run until Friday 13 July.
It will be open to the public from 10am to 5pm during the week and entry is free.