The Universe Around You: What an Amateur Astrophotographer Can See


Here is the first page of Google Image Search results for "nature photography":


Which is to say, visually, that we have a very terrestrial understanding of nature.

J-P Metsävainio is a nature photographer too, he says. But he doesn't take pictures of our planet or the life on it. He takes pictures of the night skies. "The night sky is part of our nature and the astronomical imaging is a form of nature photography," he wrote to me. Metsävainio lives in the north of Finland, at 65 degrees Latitude.

With his Meade LX200 GPS 12" telescope and some second-hand camera lenses, he captures emission nebulae from within our galaxy, the Milky Way. Each image takes around 10 to 20 hours of exposure. To counteract the natural rotation of Earth (which would result in all stars appearing as streaky arches), he sets his camera on a special mount that rotates in the opposite direction. Each image is composed of multiple sub-exposures of about 20 minutes, sometimes collected over not just days but weeks or even years. The colors in his pictures come from shooting the same object three times through different color filters, similar to the technique of early color photography. "Visually," he explains, "no colors can be detected, even with a large telescope, they are way too dim for human eye."


Telescope and camera ready to go

It's not really a "hobby," Metsävainio says. "I've never had a hobby. I have always done things fully and professionally, or not at all."

Recently, Metsävainio has gotten into playing around with his images in software that can take his pictures and create 3D models out of them, such as this one of IC 1396 in Cepheus.

His favorite of his pictures so far is his first from this season and it's of the Veil Nebula, located in the constellation Cygnus, estimated to be about 1,470 light years away. It is the result of about 10 hours of exposure:


Here are a few more he selected as particularly interesting:


Nothing anyone puts together here on Earth will have the range or the precision of NASA's big telescopes, but that doesn't mean that the images an amateur astrophotographer can produce don't carry some of that same punch: Here's the universe around you, bigger and more glorious than your eyes can see.

Wizard Nebula, 10 hours of exposure:


Bubble Nebula, 15 hours of exposure:


Crescent Nebula, 20 hours of exposure:


Pac-Man Nebula, 10 hours of exposure:


California Nebula, 45 hours of exposure, taken with a Tokina AT-X 300mm f2.8 lens:

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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