Astrophotography: How to shoot the night sky

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Long exposure showing the astrophotography setup (Libby Plummer)

For those of us living in large towns and cities, we rarely get to see the stars due to round-the-clock light pollution so it’s often assumed that photos showing spectacular starscapes have been produced in Photoshop. However, as the stunning pictures of the recent Geminids meteor shower prove, it is possible to capture incredible starscapes on camera, just as long as you step away from the street lights.

Professional snapper Andrew Whyte (@LongExposures) makes a living from doing just that – he’s one of the UK’s leading night photographers and is also well known for his quirky Lego man photos. We tagged along on an astrophotography shoot with him to learn how to shoot the night sky.

Where can I shoot the night sky?

While it’s possible to shoot the night sky in the UK, plenty of preparation is needed and that all starts with the location. Wide-field astrophotography – which involves capturing the night sky with a normal camera, without the need for a telescope – requires a location that’s largely free of light pollution.

These areas are known as ‘dark sky’ sites and can be found all over the country. It’s also a good idea to research the area and find out about any features – like buildings and monuments – that can be used as a foreground to your starry backdrop.

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Long exposure with star trails (Libby Plummer)

We took our shots around Douglas on the Isle of Man, but you can find out which sites are closest to you with a quick internet search. Dark Sky Discovery is a useful place to start.

It’s also important to check the weather, as too much cloud cover will prevent you from seeing the stars at all. Andrew Whyte pro snapper Andrew Whyte, who specialises in long exposure photography which includes astrophotography and lightpainting, offers some advice:

‘I’ve found XCWeather to be fairly reliable for forecasting cloud cover, and timeanddate.com provides my lunar phases and timings. A guy known as @VirtualAstro does a great job of updating Twitter with information like the times of the International Space Station passing over and aurora alerts’.

What kind of camera do I need?

While most cameras offer a range of pre-set shooting modes with some even including ‘night sky’ options, you really can’t hide behind these when it comes to astrophotography, says Whyte.

He argues that you really need to get to grips with your camera’s manual settings to get good results. But what qualities do you need to look for in an ‘astro’ camera’? Whyte explains:

‘Ultimately what makes a good camera for astro is image quality. Current models with a high ISO range, like the Sony Alpha 7S, which has a range of 40-409,000, are especially well suited to low-light photography. This particular camera also has a full frame sensor which is good for dimly lit conditions’…

You can read the rest of the article at Yahoo News UK (originally published 19 December 2014).

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Are the people of Seoul worried about the nuclear threat from North Korea?

Huff Post SeoulGoing on a press trip to Seoul just days after North Korean autocrat Kim Jong-Un threatened to carry out nuclear attacks on South Korea, Japan and the US wasn’t exactly ideal timing.

But after bombarding the poor PR company in charge of the trip with a barrage of questions, placating worried parents and notifying the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of my travel plans, I flew out to Gangnam with a group of UK tech journalists.

While spending much of our time checking out LG’s latest innovations and being shown the sights of Seoul, it was hard to ignore the heightened tensions with the neighbour state.

The annual military exercises that take place between the US and South Korean forces around this time always tend to raise tensions, with North Korea viewing the training drills as a practice run for invasion.

However, this year the verbal response from the north of the peninsula has stepped up a gear, with a “state of war” being declared.

It was feared that North Korea may take the 101st birthday of the founding father Kim Il Sung as an opportunity for its threatened missile launch or perhaps something more sinister. However, the anniversary came and went without incident, except for some isolated protests in Seoul where South Korean activists burnt effigies of the Kim family in the streets.

With Seoul only an hour or two’s drive away from the border, are the inhabitants of the densely populated metropolis worried about an imminent nuclear missile strike from their neighbours? Not a bit, it would seem.

Obviously it would be unwise for the South Korean government to ignore the rhetoric from Pyongyang, with defence minister Kim Kwan-Jin stating that Seoul is fully prepared for an attack. However, while the authorities are acting with due caution, the general population of Seoul appears to be paying the young despot’s threats very little heed indeed.

It would probably be fair to say that the news of YouTube sensation Psy’s follow-up single to Gangnam Style has generated more buzz here than the bellicose threats from the fledgling dictator. You can hear the Korean rapper’s work being played constantly in bars and shops across the city and we were also treated to his new video several times by our hosts. There are even Gangnam Style socks for sale in the tourist-trap souvenir shops (yes, reader, I bought them).

Questions about the current tensions on the peninsula are generally met by the locals with a friendly chuckle and a reassurance that we’ll be perfectly safe.

While US President Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye are due to meet in Washington DC on 7 May to hammer out a solution, the local population in Seoul appears to be astoundingly nonplussed about the threats, having heard a lot of the same in the past.

Writing in the Korea Times, columnist Donald Kirk said:

On the streets of Seoul, no one is talking about war or looking for bomb shelters. Armageddon, Koreans believe, is not at hand. The mood is all for peace and dialogue. The question remains where, how, on what terms and to what end.

Kirk hits the nail on the head. The city is as busy as you’d expect a bustling conurbation to be. In fact, many of the streets are currently lined with strings of colourful lanterns to celebrate the 2,576th birthday of Buddha on 17 May while the blooming cherry blossom trees add an extra dash of defiant cheerfulness.

Tourist hotspots, such as Gyeongbokgung Palace are still very busy, although, most of the tourists there appear to be Korean and Chinese, with very few Westerners around. We were told that foreign visitor numbers are down since last year, most likely as a result of the ongoing tensions.

City nightlife still appears to be in full swing, although US soldiers stationed in South Korea are currently on curfew, cutting the number of Westerners out on the streets late at night.

There is no visible military presence in central Seoul at all, although we did spot a lone army helicopter hovering above the city. It wasn’t until we ventured to Paju, just 16km from the border that we spotted soldiers at a South Korean army base. Most of the tiny guard huts running along the length of the border appeared to be empty – we only spotted one that was manned.

Our tour guide compared the country’s current situation to that in Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall – in the sense of a country temporarily divided. Rather than concentrating on the current tensions and expecting another Korean war, there is much talk of inevitable reunification in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, the good folk of Seoul carry on with their daily lives. Maybe if Kim Jong-Un uploaded a record-breaking YouTube video with a memorable dance routine, they’d take more notice of his increasingly desperate attempts to cement his place in history.

This article was originally published on 22 April 2013 on The Huffington Post UK.

The Disposable Memory Project

Disposable Memory ProjectWhen the nice folk at Kodak asked if I wanted to get involved with the Disposable Memory Project, I jumped at the chance, given that I’m a huge fan of film photography. The Kodak chaps recently provided me with some disposable cameras for a feature where I spent seven days working only with film  – no digital allowed – so I was keen to get stuck in once again.

Established in April 2008, the Disposable Memory Project is a “global photography experiment” where throwaway cameras are passed on to others or left in public locations around the world.

Disposable Memory ProjectEach camera includes a message urging the finder to take a few pictures and then pass the snapper on. There are also instructions on where to return the camera to when the film is finished.

More than 350 camera have been released already and you can see the results from those that have made it safely home over at the Project’s website. So far, more than 70 countries have been visited, with the cameras racking up over 440,000 miles of travel between them.

Disposable Memory ProjectMy Kodak Ultra single-use camera started its journey in South London and spent a short time travelling around the Big Smoke before jetting off to Washington D.C in the US of A, courtesy of my mum. From there, who knows where it will end up. You can follow its progress on its own little tracking page.

If the Disposable Memory Project sounds like your kind of bag, then you can get involved yourself by contacting the chaps in charge or follow the Twitter feed on @foundacam.

Cinecittà – Italy’s lengendary film studio

Cinecitta Rome setItalian filmmaker Frederico Fellini once referred to Cinecittà as a “temple of dreams” and it’s not hard to see why.

This legendary film studio was founded in 1937 and has played host to numerous blockbusters, including Ben Hur, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. The largest film studio in continental Europe, Cinecittà (Italian for Cinema City) has been the filming location for more than 3,000 films over the years including 48 Oscar winners and dozens of ‘spaghetti westerns’. Thanks to the creative talent on offer and relatively cheap production costs, numerous American productions were made at the studio in the 1950s, earning it the nickname “Hollywood on the Tiber”.

Cinecittà film studio

As well as being a beautiful example of modernist architecture, the studio has many claims to fame. Long before Lady Gaga was garbling about Paparazzi, the term was coined at Cinecittà, named after a photographer called Paparazzo from Frederico Fellini’s hugely successful La Dolce Vita. The famous studio is also where Hollywood stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their affair while fiming the extravagant epic Cleopatra.

The studio has survived bombing attacks during World War II as well as a fire in 2007 that resulted in a substantial amount of damage.

I was lucky enough to visit the studios on a recent press trip to the Italian capital, where we had the chance to go boozing at a lavish party on the set of BBC/HBO drama Rome, of which I’m a huge fan. Needless to say, much bubbly was quaffed, many poses were struck and copious amounts of embarrassing photos snapped.

If you’re ever in Rome and looking for something to do that’s a little different, then I highly recommend a visit.