Australian Paul Mayo’s photos are astronomical in every sense of the word.

This brilliant and well known region of nebulae is studied for its evidence of star making and is located 1,300 light years away in the constellation Orion.

How and why did you first get into astrophotography?

In the early 1970s, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I became fascinated with the universe. It was very much the space-race era, with the first man walking on the moon, the first spaceships landing on Mars and the Voyager spacecraft flying past the big planets. I remember asking my grandmother to get me a telescope for Christmas, and eventually, after much begging, she did [leading to the e-book Australian Night Sky, by Paul and his partner, Sylvia Mayo, being dedicated to the memory of his grandmother, Dorothy Ashman].

One of the main reasons I’ve always done this type of photography is to be able to show the pictures to other people and share my fascination. To say, ‘This is what’s out there, right above your head – you simply can’t see it because it’s too far away and too faint.’ Then to explain something about what they are looking at. Gaseous molecular clouds where stars are born, clusters of stars, the remains of old exploded stars, distant islands of stars called galaxies, and a whole bunch of other exotic objects. They say there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe and each one has 100 billion or more stars. And we are just one star, one planet. That’s mind-blowing.

150,000 light years away, beyond our own galaxy, in a small primordial galaxy orbiting our own, is this region of nebula busily producing new stars.

When did you first attach a camera to a telescope?

My father had a fancy SLR, and then it dawned on me…

I waited for a week to get the [first] film back, and it was completely blank. Nothing on it whatsoever. So I didn’t try again until I was a young adult in the mid-1980s, working as a computer programmer. I bought a secondhand Praktica MTL5 and the right attachments for my cheap Chinese telescope. The telescope was only 4.5 inches [114mm] in diameter, with a focal length of 900mm, and it simply wasn’t good enough. But it taught me a lot about what I needed.

Back then, I don’t think there were any books on how to do astrophotography. Just occasional articles in astronomy magazines. Now there are lots of books and how-tos on websites.

A dark nebula resembling a horse’s head appears at the centre, silhouetted against a large glowing red nebula in the background. Located 1,500 light years away in the constellation Orion. Exposure time 5.5 hours.

What are the main technical challenges with astrophotography?

Firstly, you can’t get great results in a town or city because there’s too much leakage of artificial light at night. Sylvia and I live in rural Gippsland, Victoria, 20 kilometres from the nearest town, in a dark region with breathtaking night skies. And less conveniently, our fair share of cloud.

Beyond that, part of the difficulty with this type of photography is that all of the astronomical photographic targets are slowly moving across the sky because the Earth is spinning at 15 degrees an hour. The other difficulty is that bringing out the bright colours in what’s there requires very long exposures, sometimes up to six hours or more. That means that to get sharp, unblurred images, you need a telescope with a very precise, geared tracking system.

Which you obviously now have.

Yes. I’ve had my current telescope for about 12 years, having built it from various parts in the same way someone might build a hotrod. The American-made Losmandy telescope mount alone [with servomotors and gearing] cost about $8,000. My telescope has 12-inch-diameter [300mm] optics, with a focal length of 1500mm. You can think of it as a massive telephoto lens. I call it ‘behemoth’. And if I had my way, I’d have an even bigger one. The sky really is the limit when it comes to astrophotography equipment, but a bigger telescope would present even more complex problems. I’d need to invest a few more tens of thousands of dollars in the whole setup.

I also have a smaller portable telescope for when we travel in the outback in our caravan. It has 200mm-diameter optics and a fast f/ratio of f/4. It’s short and fat-looking so I affectionately call it ‘fatboy’.

Known as the Great Comet of 2007 this amazing comet was visible to the naked eye in the evening sky for several weeks. Photographed at sunset from Barrington Tops National Park in Australia.

Did switching from film to digital cameras make a difference to you?

That was interesting. In around 2001, I bought a Canon 300D and got some amazing results – except that there was a lot of ‘noise’ generated by the camera’s sensor in the long exposures. With any digital camera, if you put the lens cap on and take an exposure of several minutes, you would expect to get a completely black photo. But you don’t. You get a black photo with speckled noise on it, sort of like poor TV reception. It’s called ‘thermal noise’ and it increases with temperature and exposure time. What astrophotographers had to do was cool our cameras down. A few people around the world started pulling apart Canon cameras and putting thermoelectric cooling systems in them which cooled the sensor to -30 degrees, dramatically reducing the noise.

These days I usually use an uncooled Canon 6D. Camera sensors have improved a lot in 20 years, and all the test reports showed that the 6D produced the least amount of noise in its sensor.

Located in the constellation Scorpio it is one of the most colorful places in our galaxy. The colors are created by different types of gaseous nebula and molecular clouds. Right of centre is the red supergiant star Antares.

Are the colours in your photos entirely natural?

They are. There’s a variety of scientific explanations for the different colours. Briefly, stars have a certain range of colours depending on what stage of their lifetime they are up to. There are a lot of red nebulae [interstellar clouds of dust and ionised gases] because the hydrogen gas gets ionised by ultraviolet radiation from nearby stars which makes it glow red. The other predominant nebula colour is blue, and we have the dark brown regions in the Milky Way where dust left over from the creation of stars blocks the starlight behind it.

An amazing tree silhouetted against the glow from billions of individual stars and massive dark lanes of interstellar dust that make up our galaxy, the Milky Way.

What about black holes? When scientists very recently published the first photo of a black hole, it was distinctly unimpressive. It looked like an out-of-focus donut.

Unimpressive perhaps, but scientifically significant. Black holes are something amateur astrophotographers can’t photograph. The scientists achieved it by joining telescopes together across the Earth to act as one. We can, however, photograph the side-effects black holes have on the environment around them. One good example is a fairly oval-shaped galaxy in the constellation of Virgo which has a smoky-looking jet shooting out of it. We know that black holes can spew out a lot of X-rays and other luminous material at very high speed.

What do you do with your photos?

They’re for sale in the e-book and individually as prints on our website The Australian Night Sky. Some have been published in magazines, textbooks and on the front pages of newspapers, and the BBC used some in a documentary.

For about six years, up until two years ago, we quit our IT jobs and travelled around Australia taking photos in isolated areas of the outback and selling prints at touristy markets in Darwin, on the Gold Coast and the like. We sold thousands and made a reasonable living out of it.

Rising above the hills in our backyard is the “Aboriginal Emu in the Sky” constellation. Indigenous people recognized the dark regions of the sky to resemble an Emu. The Emu in the sky has been part of Aboriginal dreamtime stories for thousands of years. The Southern Cross appears at top centre image. Gippsland Victoria.

Do you do any digital photo enhancement in post-production?

Nothing too dramatic. Like most photographers, I want the images to be as realistic and natural as possible, with a little bit of balance towards them being aesthetically pleasing. Maybe a little contrast adjustment to darken a background, or a little extra saturation to bring out the fainter colours. Sharpening is almost a no-no because it destroys the ‘smoothness’ you want in photos of whole galaxies and the like.

Are you working on any particular projects at present?

In astrophotography, there are tens of thousands of choices of what you can photograph. Right now, I’m in the middle of a 12-month project to create one single 360-degree photo of our whole galaxy, the Milky Way. I’m using panoramic techniques and stitching the shots together as the sky changes throughout the year and we see different parts of the galaxy.

And when I’m not framing pictures to meet orders from our website, I’m studying for a degree in astrophysics and quantum mechanics. Making a late run on my lifelong dream to become an astronomer.

The Australian Night Sky website

Article by Steve Packer

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 81

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