I’ve had a fleeting interest in photography for a while now. I did a GCSE in it (I got a B, hold the applause) and its been pretty fascinating to me ever since. I still find it amazing that with a bit of curved glass you can create all these peculiar effects, adding extra detail and emphasising things that the ordinary eye wouldn’t have picked out. It’s this interest that had me wandering out to Greenwich to go see the Astronomy Photographer of the Year exhibit at the Royal Observatory. Having been to Photographer of the Year exhibits before, I had an idea of what was going on at the Royal Observatory but it’s essentially a small pop up art gallery below the observatory.
Having marched up the side of a hill I wandered into the observatory just looking for somewhere to have a rest and accidentally found the exhibit straight away. It was quite a small room with the lights dimmed (to emphasise the actual pictures I presume) and small screens littered about with a video telling you about some of the stories of how the pictures were taken. Compared to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit this one seemed a bit pokey and tucked away, as if they didn’t particularly want it to be found. Once I started to actually look about the room, I couldn’t understand why! Every picture was astonishing in it’s own right, each with a different subject varying from far away nebulas to our own sun and even the northern lights. All the photographers had written little tales of how they’d come to take the picture (even the children’s category, which was suspiciously eloquent for something written for 7-11 year olds… I feel some parental “supervision” may have occurred, but that’s neither here nor there.) Some of these paragraphs spoke of long nights in Norway’s blistering cold, waiting for the perfect that never came until upon surrender, the night’s sky presented them with all they had wanted and so much more.
What caught me off guard was the lack of experience of some of these astrophotographers. Pictures that had been given honourable mentions in the competition or even won were taken by first timers with pretty basic cameras (iPads, phones and one that was a 6-month exposure of a home made pinhole camera!) This gave the exhibit a feeling that anyone could make it into the exhibit, making it all the more exciting knowing that even I could capture such overwhelming beauty on my phone (providing I know where to look, of course!) Of course, the more professional pictures were much more detailed using deep field images and solar flares as subject matter, taking the pictures with specifically designed home made instruments (one mosaic creator went and wrote some code to help organise and line up the vast amount of pictures he had taken of a nebula to create one fluid and highly detailed image.)
When I left the exhibit I felt like I had a greater understanding of scale in the universe. One of the pictures had shown the Moon and ISS “overlapping” each other, the space station taking up a tiny tiny tiny proportion of the Moon’s area in the picture (barely covering the smallest of visible craters in the picture.) Knowing how close the ISS is to Earth compared to the Moon, you suddenly realise just how tiny people are. Diagrams you see in school are obviously not drawn to scale but you still think that there’s probably some degree of accuracy to it. You’re shown the cliché pictures of the planets next to the Sun, the Sun next to other stars and so on but your head can’t quite grasp the actual meaning of this scale difference. Seeing exactly how small you are right in front of you in a real picture is quite different, almost unnerving in fact. It really cements in you just how large space is in comparison to your regular life.
The statue of Yuri Gagarin in the courtyard of the observatory was a welcome surprise. It reminded me of the effort people went to such a short time ago to take pictures that nowadays 7 year olds can on an iPad and how far we’ve come since then. When I walked out, I was greeted with a fantastic panorama of London’s skyline and felt compelled to take a picture. Not because it was something I don’t see often or because it was a pretty picture, but because I wanted a reminder that I’m not in space every day, I don’t come across these giant rocks on my way to Mile End every day before lectures and that there’s plenty down here on pokey little Earth to keep me busy for now.