Interview with Astronomer and Astrophotographer Phil Hart
Do you have a background in astronomy? What made you decide to go into night sky photography and astrophotography?
Astronomy and Photography have been together for me from the beginning. Growing up, my parents would take us two kids outside on holidays and try and identify stars and constellations in the sky. Then as a teenager I got access to a couple of film SLRs at the same time as I was making the astronomy hobby my own. I used those film SLRs primarily at night from the start and the two interests have been one and the same for me ever since, just over twenty years ago.
How difficult is astrophotography for the average amateur photographer?
Astrophotography can be as complex (and expensive) as you want it to be. It can involve serious telescopes, large equatorial tracking mounts, sophisticated cameras, computer control.. the works! But what I call ‘night sky photography’ is ideally just a digital SLR and a tripod. And that’s what I love about it. No staring at computer screens and trying to figure out their stupid error messages – just you and your camera and the sky. The location and foreground becomes a key part of the image, making each one unique as well.
What is the most challenging aspect about night sky photography and astrophotography for you?
Light pollution and weather! There are loads of night sky photographic ideas, particularly with the Moon, that can work in the big cities. But to capture a great shot of the Milky Way, you’ve got to get out into the dark countryside and you need the weather to cooperate. But that’s also the greatest appeal – getting out into nature, at night, with the adrenalin rush of a clear blue sky fading through twilight to a beautiful dark night.
What are some of the default adjustments you have to make in post-production when editing long exposure photos? Do you have any special software for specific functions such as noise reduction?
I do most of my work in Lightroom, perhaps using PtGui for panoramas or StarStax to stack star trail sequences. With the aperture often wide open, the Lens Profile and vignetting corrections in Lightroom often get a workout, and I typically turn sharpening down in favor of stronger noise reduction (smoothing) which Lightroom does very well. Then it’s a case of working the basic sliders to strengthen the contrast in the shadows which is of course where most of the image information is in a night sky image.
Most people don’t realize the amount of preparation involved in capturing a beautiful photography of the night sky. Can you walk us through the logistics of a typical day out shooting the Milky Way, for example?
I’ll often try to keep the New Moon weekend each month free on my calendar and then if the weather is good, pack the car for a night (or two!) away under dark skies. I also often try to tie this kind of photography into other trips away with friends or family to interesting locations. If the weather is good I might setup a timelapse or star trail early in the evening and then join the others with a drink and hope it stays clear!
As an expert in night sky photography, what are some of your suggestions for lenses and accessories for beginners looking to build their own kit?
First, get a solid tripod. That’s the only thing you must have. Second would be a remote release which can be bought quite cheaply now and opens up a lot more imaging ideas like star trails and timelapse.
As for lenses, wide angles with relatively fast maximum apertures are the way to go. For cropped sensor cameras, the Canon 10-22mm, Tokina 11-16mm f2.8 and Samyang 14mm f2.8 are the kind of lenses to consider adding to your existing kit. With full frame cameras you have loads more choices, including the more expensive but really nice fast primes. The Canon 14mm f2.8 and blazingly fast 24mm f1.4 are two that I use a lot.
You spent nine weeks in Canada’s Yukon Territory on “the biggest astronomy and photography adventure” you’ve ever tackled. What were some of the difficulties you encountered while photographing the Northern Lights and how did you overcome them?
While I love snow and cold weather, operating constantly in sub-arctic conditions is a real physical and mental challenge. I tried to be outside as much as possible and took whatever opportunities I got when the skies cleared and the northern lights presented themselves. The logistics of getting a lot of gear there and back was quite a headache too but you could make do with a lot less than I used.
You have captured hundreds of thousands of images over the course of your career. Can you share your top 3 favorites with us and why?
My favourite night sky photography is from the Yukon, and not just a single image but some of the timelapse sequences I captured. This short fast two minute video contains some of the best clips I captured during that nine week ‘aurora adventure’ with a soundtrack by my talented friend Dean Roberts.
The aurora storm I witnessed on 15th March 2012 way up north in Tombstone Park in the Yukon Territory was just incredible. This is a crop from a panorama I captured in challenging conditions at the end of twilight that may not be perfect but captures the scene nicely. It brings me right back to that moment and still sends shivers down my spine.
More recently, I captured a panorama near Heathcote in central Victoria (Australia) where I do a lot of astronomy and photography with the Astronomical Society of Victoria. I haven’t actually tried a lot of panoramic photography but I really like how this one came together – a very Australian landscape that captures the best of our winter skies as well with the Milky Way and Magellenic Clouds, which are satellite galaxies of our own and more distant than any star you can see in the sky.
My third choice has to be one of Bioluminescence in the Gippsland Lakes. The images I captured in 2009 have been incredibly popular online, but we got a glimpse of some more during the last summer as well which is when this image was taken. Like most images at night, this looks nothing like what your eyes see but it makes for a stunning combination of colours. A lot of people think my bioluminescence images are fake, but this is just a straightforward stack of over one hundred 30 second exposures with my 24mm lens at f2 on a Canon 5D Mark II on 12th January 2013.
Your Shooting Stars ebook has been a big success. How does it differ from other ebooks about night sky photography?
There really aren’t many books about night sky photography, electronic or otherwise, with the emphasis on just using a digital SLR and a tripod to photograph the stars. There are ebooks about night and low-light photography, even covering landscapes. But Shooting Stars is the most comprehensive one I’ve seen about photographing the night sky. I’ve tried to condense twenty years of what I’ve learned into this book and dealt with all the kinds of questions I receive when running night sky photography workshops. I’ve now watched and helped hundreds of beginners start their journey and this book will get you up that learning curve as fast as possible.
Then there’s a whole section of the book dedicated to ‘Wonders of the Night Sky’, various events and phenomena that occur in the night sky, and how to apply your new night sky photography skills to capturing them. I get a lot of great feedback about the book and the amount of material it covers – I know it will help anyone get out and capture some great night sky images.
Phil Hart’s tagline these days is ‘engineer by day, astronomer by night’. Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, he developed a strong interest in astronomy and photography. On a student budget through school and university, he built his own telescope which remains one of his more successful DIY projects. As an engineer now, he naturally has a strong technical approach to night sky photography but enjoys exploring the artistic side of the hobby as well. After five years in Scotland enjoying the northern skies and an occasional aurora, Phil returned to Melbourne in 2006 and continued to dive deeper into the hobby, just as the age of affordable and high performing digital SLRs really began to bloom.
In 2011, Phil started running Night Sky Photography Workshops in Melbourne, to share his love of photography and the night sky with others. When you combine these workshops with his nearly twenty years’ experience, it is safe to say that the information in this book has been well road-tested!