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Phil Hart: Two Decades of Stargazing

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Phil Hart is an engineer by day and astronomer by night. A passion that started at an early age and led him to write an eBook, Shooting Stars, and create night time photography workshops in Melbourne. We interviewed Hart about his stargazing passion.

For long exposure, 'star trail' type images there is still a great place for film.

It's a lonely activity and you do need to be patient. Phil Hart is well aware of both aspects, having photographed the night sky for two decades, both looking at the North and South poles, in film and digital. Now, he is sharing that experience with people through his workshops, an eBook and this interview.

QWhen did you become interested in photographing stars? Did photography arrive first or was it just a natural progression from your interest in astronomy?

For me, astronomy and photography have been together from the start. When I was sixteen, I printed out a set of simple sky charts (on a dot matrix printer!) and started learning my way around the night sky from the backyard with a pair of binoculars.

The next year, I started building my first telescope, including grinding and polishing an 8” mirror under the guidance of instrument making gurus at the Astronomical Society of Victoria. Around the same time, I also got access to a couple of film SLRs. I started experimenting with them at night and everything snowballed pretty quickly from there.

QYou're an engineer. What is your field? Is it related to this area?

I work as a Materials Engineer with Melbourne Water, so there’s no direct relation to astronomy and photography. But the engineering mindset has helped me learn a lot along the way about cameras and optics and also now about the performance of digital sensors in low light.

The Melbourne Moon picture from Phil Hart recently won the overall David Malin Award at the 2012 CWAS Astrofest. The image was taken from very close to the author's home, in Williamstown, near the center of Melbourne, Australia.

QYou say in your eBook that digital cameras are fantastic tools for star shooting. Do you think you would not have started doing this kind of photography if we were still using film?

I’ve been photographing the night sky for nearly twenty years and half that time was using film SLRs, and so that meant also using tracking mounts to get long enough exposures. But digital sensors are so much more sensitive than film, so now you can achieve a lot just using short exposures on a tripod. Anybody can create much more impressive images with digital and much more easily than my early days using film.

QDoes that mean that you consider photographers interested in this kind of photography better off with digital than using film?

For short exposure 'night sky scenes', digital really rules over film because of that much greater sensitivity. For long exposure 'star trail' type images there is still a great place for film.

Stars appear nicely saturated on film, and you don’t need any batteries to keep a piece of film exposed for several hours. So there is still a role for film for those with a passion for it, but for most people digital is the way to go.

For short exposure 'night sky scenes,' digital really rules over film because of that much greater sensitivity.

QWhat type of camera do you use? APS-C or Full Frame?

I use both. Full frame cameras do have an advantage in low light, because larger sensors mean larger pixels and therefore greater sensitivity. But today’s APS-C/cropped sensor cameras are great and I know that’s what most people use.

I often use an entry level Canon 1100D (Rebel T3) and have several examples throughout the book taken with that to show what can be achieved with even the simplest equipment. I also have images in the book taken with the earlier Canon 10D and 20D APS-C cameras, which are outclassed by recent models but can still capture impressive images.

QIn terms of lenses, which are your options for shooting stars?

The wider and faster the better! Except for the moon of course when longer focal lengths are what most people want.

QIf you are asked for advice in terms of equipment for someone just starting out and with a low budget, what would you advise as the essential kit (camera, lenses, etc)?

You really don't need a high megapixel camera for night sky photography. In fact, less megapixels often means less noise which is a good thing. And you don’t need the latest and greatest autofocus or the highest number of frames per second. So the affordable entry level DSLRs are really a great starting point.

An interesting alternative now is to look at picking up a second-hand full frame camera. The original Canon 5D now sells for a very affordable price but can take great night images, and other full frame cameras also look attractive on the second-hand market. Any of these full frame cameras open up a lot more wide/fast lens choices as well.

"I guess my love of astronomy runs pretty deep as I still love being out under the stars," says Phil Hart.

QStar shooting means long exposures at night. Do normal kit lenses, like the Canon 18-55mm work for this kind of photography?

I wrote the Shooting Stars eBook assuming that most people would be using a kit lens bought with their camera, typically covering that 18-55mm range. And it is certainly possible to take great nightscapes of the stars and the Milky Way with these kit lenses. When you’re ready to look at new lenses, then wider angle zooms are a logical next step as they’re great for capturing a larger swath of the night sky.

On a full frame camera, faster prime lenses are the way to go, like an affordable 28mm f1.8 lens or even wider and/or faster if you have the budget to suit.

QYou spent some time in Scotland, the northern hemisphere, so you have experience photographing the sky there, but you're based in Australia now. Are there different challenges photographing at those locations? Is one better than the other?

The Southern Hemisphere gets a slightly better view of the Milky Way, but the Northern Hemisphere does better with the major meteor showers. So it’s a case of swings and roundabouts, but most of the sky is common to both hemispheres, it’s just upside down.

"I've just spent nine weeks earlier this year in the Yukon in Canada shooting the Northern Lights," reveals the photographer.

QIs there a "dream place" to shoot the sky? If you had the chance to go a place to shoot stars the way you like, where would you go?

Well, I’ve just spent nine weeks earlier this year in the Yukon in Canada shooting the Northern Lights. That was pretty much a dream come true and it’s going to take a long time to process all the images and timelapse footage I captured there.

Where would I go next time? Well there is a reason why most of the world’s large telescopes are built in Chile, and the mountains provide some incredible scenery, so photographing under the dark and clear night skies there would be nice one day.

QShooting stars means a lot of time out, at night, at different places. How do you cope with that in terms of safety and comfort?

I certainly do spend a lot of time out in strange locations now, and it’s usually cold and always dark, but that’s just the way I like it. I dress warmly, take plenty of food and try to get a decent amount of sleep before driving home. In the Yukon, I bought a SPOT satellite messenger so that I could ‘check-in’ or send for help despite being out in the true sub-arctic wilderness for several nights in a row. Having a reliable vehicle is reassuring as well.

The cover of Shooting Stars, the eBook written by Phil Hart to share his experience photographing the moon and stars.

QThose long sessions also mean being away from the family or having a family that enjoys the activity. How do you manage to keep the balance between pursuing your passion and the people you share your life with? How do they accept that? How many hours a month do you devote to the activity?

My partner is very supportive, and she knew I was a mad astronomer before she agreed to marry me. But it’s not easy to get the balance right. She does appreciate the night sky, but not for hours on end in the middle of winter like I do, so she usually stays home without me.

The time commitment can vary a lot, but typically I would spend one weekend away each month and then a lot of computer time processing images in between. That much time away from home is a lot to ask, especially when that becomes nine weeks in the Yukon!

QYou've started doing workshops in 2011. How did you make that decision? Are workshops something you will want to keep doing in the future? Are there enough people interested in shooting stars?

I enjoy teaching so it became a natural step to take. The feedback I get is encouraging, so I like to think I have a skill for explaining even some of the complex topics involved. It’s a somewhat specialized topic, and I have a day job as well, so I can’t run them every month, but hope I can keep running them going occasionally.

I’ve had people jumping up and down with excitement when they get their first night sky image on the back of their camera, so it can be very rewarding for me as well.

Thirty seconds is about what you can get away with before movement of the stars becomes too obvious.

QLooking at the images in your eBook one finds that a lot of images are shot around a 30 second exposure, what most cameras can do easily. That's somehow contrary to what many people believe, and it shows that this kind of photography is accessible to more people that we may initially think. Do you tend to work within the 30 second limit when possible (for all but the star trails, obviously)?

Thirty seconds is about what you can get away with before movement of the stars becomes too obvious, and like you say, that’s convenient and easy to do with most cameras. It’s the remarkable thing about digital SLRs that such a short exposure is enough to get a great image of the night sky, but that’s why shooting the night sky has become so popular in the last few years.

QYour eBook is a concise guide for everything from shooting the sky to creating time lapses. How did you arrive at the decision to write the eBook?

By the middle of last year, my friend Neil Creek had written two photography eBooks already (for Digital Photography School), which were quite successful. I thought there was a niche for a Night Sky Photography eBook and after developing notes and examples for the workshops I had much of the material I needed. After that, it was simply a case of dedicating time to finish the project. Neil’s partner Naomi Creek did the graphic design and layout, which is why it looks so good!

QPhotography is a lonely activity (or shared with people with the same mindset), and I guess this kind of photography is even more so. Is it passion that moves you? Or the idea of having beautiful images to show others?

It’d be pretty hard to take night sky images if you didn’t like being out under the stars, but fortunately it’s something that a lot of people do enjoy and are amazed by.

I guess my love of astronomy runs pretty deep as I still love being out under the stars, even after nearly twenty years. There is an extra kick of excitement when you see a great image on the back of the camera as you work away at night, so that certainly helps keep the motivation up.

Anybody can create much more impressive images with digital and much more easily than with film.

QBeing patient is also a must to get back home with these kind of shots. What do you do to fill the waiting time in the field? What do you think about when all is done and you click the shutter? Just gaze at the sky? Are you still in awe after all this time?

Often I will have multiple cameras running, so I can keep myself pretty busy thinking about what I’m trying to achieve with each of them and the best approach to use. But just watching and waiting for a shooting star or following the patterns of the constellations around the sky can keep me amused for a long time once the cameras are ticking away.

Also, I often try to take photos while on holiday or helping down at Camp Cooinda on the Gippsland Lakes. So that usually means I have some other task I should be attending to or that I should be back inside with my partner or friends who’ve come on holiday with us.

The only time I get bored is when the weather doesn’t work out and I’m waiting several hours under a cloudy sky. Those are the times when the company of other photography friends is most appreciated!

QAny last advice or thoughts you would like to share with people about this type of photography?

I hope the Shooting Stars eBook helps some of your readers capture the kind of night sky images that have excited me for the last twenty years!

NOTE: Phototuts+ has a special offer for readers. If you buy the eBook Shooting Stars, use the code PTSTARS when checking out, to get a $5 discount over the $24.95 cover price of the eBook.

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