Astrophotography is one of the most immediate ways we as humans can engage with the cosmos. Taking photos allows us momentarily to escape from our terrestrial confines. If properly equipped, anyone can explore the cosmos. As technologies have improved and become more accessible, it has become easier to pursue astrophotography as a hobby. To learn more about astrophotography, we spoke to Greg Redfern, an avid astrophotographer who has been taking pictures of the skies and has written two books on the subject. He explained his passion for “astropics”, the process of writing his books, and tips for others interested in astrophotography.
Why are you passionate about astrophotography?
When you take an astropic, you are capturing a moment in time that will never be repeated in your life or that of the universe. It is singularly unique for all time. That is powerful. Also, the beauty in the image and the science required to obtain it are, quite simply, amazing. More than 50 years after taking my first astropic, which was of the Moon in a six-inch Newtonian reflector from Edmund Scientific and using film, I still cherish each image I obtain. I always do a “first look” at images after an astropic session to see what I got. Doing so is so exciting, like opening a surprise package that you have no idea what it contains. I view each image to see if it is worth keeping for further processing using what I call my “astrophotographer’s eye”, a skill developed over time to know what to keep and what to delete. In my book, I show readers that they shouldn’t give up on images too soon as processing can bring them back from being “dead on arrival” to pretty impressive. Whether I am in “camera only” or “camera and telescope” mode for an astropic imaging session, I am preparing to become one with the sky – be it day or night. Doing so brings such an inward peace and palpable excitement, knowing that I will be capturing photons from the Solar System, the Milky Way, or a distant deep sky object.
Why have you written books explaining how to do astrophotography?
I love to write and lecture about astronomy and space and I have been fortunate to be able to do so in multiple venues. Since 1980, I have written newspaper columns, feature articles for Sky and Telescope and other magazines, been active on social media, appeared on TV and radio, and taught astronomy. In 2003, I became a NASA JPL Solar System Ambassador and in 2006 the space reporter for WTOP.com. I started giving presentations on cruise ships and at Shenandoah National Park in 2013.
I got the idea for my first book after I had successfully taken astropics at sea aboard cruise ships. At an astronomical conference, a good friend of mine suggested that I contact Springer Astronomy about my book idea. I did, and they wrote back that astrophotography couldn’t be done at sea. I responded with astropics I had taken. Next thing you know, I had a contract and a year later Cruise Ship Astronomy and Astrophotography was published in 2018 as part of Springer Astronomy’s Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series. This is the first book ever published on the subject. My editors contacted me in 2019 about doing an astrophotography book for beginners, and in October 2020 Astrophotography Is Easy! Basics For Beginners was published, again as part of Springer Astronomy’s Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series. To be honest, it is still incredible to me to have written two books for a mainstream and prestigious astronomy publishing company. My hope is that others learn from these books to start their astrophotography pursuits on sea and land.
What is something not commonly understood about astrophotography?
Here it is in a nutshell: anyone can take astropics……anyone. You do not have to be an astronomer or have fancy cameras and telescopes. Today’s smartphones can take excellent and stunning astropics in “camera only” and “camera and telescope” modes. As I say in both my books, all you need to take astropics is the sky and a camera… that’s it. Now, how good they turn out will, of course, depend on the camera, the sky, and your skill. That is where my two books come into play. They provide you with information on what you need to know about cameras, lenses, telescopes, mounts, imaging methods, the sky, and most importantly, yourself.
Getting what I call the “astrophotography bug” is something that happens to everyone who undertakes the pursuit of photons from the universe. In all likelihood, this becomes a lifelong “affliction”. It can lead to wanting to take more astropics, getting bigger and better astrophotography gear, frustration with clouds and other sky conditions, and a never-ending quest for getting better astropics. I also discuss “Astrophotography Ethics” in my books and provide “Astrophotography Rules to Live By”. The ethics concerns how one’s astropics must never be presented without full disclosure regarding use of special techniques such as adding color or multiple images to an astropic. Redfern’s Rules draws upon my own hard knocks, mistakes, and accumulated experience to help newcomers avoid problems. Rule #1 is always read the user’s manual. The majority of people I encounter have not read the user’s manual for their camera! Good luck getting good astropics without having done so – frustration is in your astropic future!