Our universe is a wonderful, marvelous place full of stunning vistas and astounding events.
From Earth we can see the glory of our own Solar System, the grand structure of amazing galaxies, and even the remnants of exploding stars.
We typically imagine these views of the sky being made possible only through billion dollar government projects, like the Hubble telescope. But you don’t need government funding to take a great photo of the cosmos. In fact, stunning images of the universe can be obtained right in your own backyard. And there are plenty of resourceful astrophotographers around the world, giving Hubble a run for its money.
Andrew McCarthy lives near Sacramento in California. He works in sales and business operations for a software company, but in his spare time, he’s an avid astrophotographer. His interest was piqued at an early age when his dad showed him the rings of Saturn and the clouds of Jupiter. “Just as a little kid it was mind-blowing to see these things up there,” Andrew tells Supercluster. “And I think that really sparked a love for space I had as a kid.”
Andrew didn’t take his passion much further while he was younger, but about two years ago he decided to buy a telescope and see what he could glimpse from his own backyard. He was hooked instantly, and soon he was trying to capture the fascinating objects he saw in the night sky.
“I tried taking some pictures by holding my cell phone up to the eyepiece, and of course they turned out terrible,”
"So I did some research on forums on how to get into this… and after enough effort my results started to get better and better, I started investing in better equipment, and now I’m grinding away looking for that perfect shot.”
Andrew's Image of the Pillars of Creation within the Eagle Nebula shot to the top of Reddit recently.
Despite his short time as an astrophotographer, he has already amassed more than 100,000 followers on his Instagram account, a testament to the quality of his stunning images. And he isn’t planning on stopping any time soon — he’s recently snapped images of deep sky objects like the Pelican Nebula, as well as shots of the Moon and other objects in our own Solar System.
“As a teenager, I would sit at home and look at pictures of different galaxies and nebulae and stuff like that,” she says.
“But I never quite realized you could actually take pictures of that stuff yourself.”
Living in Sweden, Mia has unique access to stunning views of the northern lights, as the aurora twists and turns in the sky in an array of fascinating colors almost every night. Seeing an opportunity, she bought a digital camera back in 2012 and, with “no idea how to do it”, went out and started taking pictures. By her own admission, her first images “looked like shit”. But she was entranced.
“You could clearly see the green,” she said. “You could see the aurora in the pictures, and you could see the stars in the pictures. And that blew my mind the first time I saw that on the back of the camera. I realized you can capture this stuff. You don’t have to look at NASA pictures. Regular people can capture this at home in your backyard. After that I was completely hooked.”
After Mia leaves her day job she spends hours at a time chasing her subject, camping out night after night. With her camera and tripod she waits for the perfect view of aurorae, as they sweep through the sky. And it’s all in the pursuit of sharing her amazing views with the world, something she relishes especially when people – perhaps inspired by images like hers they have seen – come to view the aurora for themselves.
“One night in August two years ago, there was a group of people from all over,” she says. “And this one young couple, who apparently came from America, stood right next to me and one of them said to the other, ‘oh could you imagine just two kids from New York City standing here watching this?’. It was a tiny little thing that was so cute, and it made me look at it in another way, knowing that people have never seen this before. It’s like you’re seeing it for the first time yourself.”
Back across the Atlantic, Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn, from the Niagara region of Ontario, is an astrophotographer of a different sort. By day she is a meteorologist forecasting the weather at a national television station in Canada, but by night she heads to her backyard to capture the universe. Boasting her own small observatory with several telescopes, Kerry’s images do not disappoint – they have won numerous accolades, including a feature on the NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) several times.
Comet Lovejoy passing in front of the M45 star cluster, better known as the Pleiades. Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn
Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn
While some astrophotographers are newcomers to the hobby, Kerry has been doing this almost her entire life, inspired by the arrival of Halley’s Comet in 1986.
“I was curious about what the comet was and what it would look like,”
Kerry often images from her own miniature observatory in her backyard.
“That started to fuel my interest in astronomy, and my parents bought me a telescope and binoculars and astronomy books, so that really helped build a foundation for the passion.”
It wasn’t until she started high school, however, that she started to experiment with film photography, taking images of the Moon, stars, and planets through her telescope. “I was so excited to see something that showed up on the film,” she says. Although, using film posed some problems. “A lot of times the developers would give me my roll back and say, ‘oh there is nothing on the pictures’,” she says. “So they were cutting the rolls right through my astronomy photos, because they couldn’t see that there were tiny little stars on them. So I said, ‘don’t cut the rolls, there’s something there, I promise!’
Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn and Paul Mortfield
The Whirlpool Galaxy (NGC 5194)is 31 million light-years from Earth. Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn
Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn
Kerry’s abilities have progressed considerably since then, with her attention now mostly focused on deep sky objects. Some of her amazing images include shots of the Orion Nebula and magnificent spiral galaxies like M106. “I get great feedback from people that have been into astrophotography, and also from peers that have been doing it for many years like myself,” she says. “It’s always nice to get an APOD too.”
Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn
Andrew, Mia, and Kerry all pursue astrophotography as a hobby, in addition to their day jobs. But Trevor Jones, who runs the AstroBackyard website, has progressed from the “addictive hobby” stage, and now makes a full-time living from shooting the night sky. On his YouTube channel he offers tips and tricks to budding and experienced astrophotographers alike, while of course also taking the time to practice his hobby himself.
Eastern Veil Nebula, October 2018, Trevor Jones
Trevor, from Ontario, says his journey into astrophotography was quite unique. After studying art at college, he became intrigued as to how people were producing beautiful images of galaxies and nebulae. “I kind of explored it based on that creative inspiration, as opposed to a scientific need to learn more about space,” he says.
Andromeda Galaxy, 2012 shot using "very modest equipment costing less than $3,000", Trevor Jones
For years he’d find himself exhausted at work, after late nights spent shooting the stars. But now he devotes himself to his passion full time. He started his website in 2015, and since then it has “really accelerated,” thanks in large part to the rapid development of astronomy equipment. Impressive results can now be obtained for about $3,000, including a telescope and camera.
“What’s really popular now is there’s so many more tools for automation and auto-focusing,” he says. “Obviously the camera technology has come so far in the last ten years. But the biggest [change] now is these advanced tools that can capture these really impressive images are really accessible and affordable [for the] average person. This equipment that used to be observatory-grade gear has now come to the average consumer market.”
Trevor’s favorite images to take are emission nebulae, ones that shine with their own brightness from nearby hot stars, like the Eagle Nebula. He does almost all of his imaging from his backyard in Ontario, though he hopes to travel to further afield locations in future.
Trevor’s typical setup for backyard deep sky astrophotography with a wide-field refractor telescope, a dedicated astronomy camera, and a tracking equatorial mount.
Astrophotography has never been more affordable or accessible, and the possibilities for the amateur enthusiast are incredible. For those looking to take on multi-billion dollar telescopes, there’s never been a better time.
“It really is at the point now where you can look at an image taken on Earth by an amateur and compare it to a telescope in space, and say they’re not that much different, that Hubble image is not that much better,” says Trevor. “That’s how far we’ve come. I certainly never thought it was possible.”
Eagle Nebula, July 2018, Trevor Jones