Studio Spaces: Astrophotography

What is his studio for the painter, is his observatory for the astronomical photographer.

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by Mark Hellweg

As an astronomical photographer, my studio is an astronomical observatory. I have the great fortune of owning my own observatory and immerse myself in the exciting world of the depths of outer space whenever possible.

Mark-Hellweg-observatory-equipment-astrophotography-studio
Mark Hellweg with his observatory equipment

Astrophotography Studio

My observatory is just big enough to accommodate my telescope and cameras. You could compare it to a small space capsule — it is very cramped because of the technical equipment inside taking up space. When people visit the observatory for the first time, the first thing they seem to notice is the large number of cables, which are tangled up and run wild and unrestrained. Bright lights are prohibited in the observatory so the only exposed light is a red auxiliary light which allows me to safely adjust the partly filigree settings on my equipment. There is also no heating system in the observatory, which means that on clear winter nights, you have to be properly bundled up, and moving around can be quite difficult.

The observatory is open daily at sunset, so that all of the equipment can gradually adjust to the surrounding temperature. A computer has been programmed to control and monitor the observatory, telescope, and cameras. The computer collects data for observational purposes, which shows the object’s length of exposure among the many other parameters being measured while the photograph is being taken. Two highly sensitive black and white cameras, each mounted on one of the two telescopes, are set up for the approaching night. One camera will follow just one star throughout the entire night, so that motors can be synchronized exactly with the Earth’s rotation. This procedure is absolutely necessary so that the second camera can take extremely sharp photos of the object under observation over a period of many hours.

Mark Hellweg Andromeda Galaxy, astrophotography studio
Andromeda Galaxy, Photography on Canvas, 47″ x 63″

The Process

After complete darkness has set in, I aim the telescope at the chosen object in the sky. I then make small and necessary adjustments to all of the equipment until everything has been set to the precise coordinates for the series of photographs. Often, this process is more of a trial of patience, as all of the time setting up my equipment means that dawn is closer to approaching, leaving me with less time to shoot. The camera following the object under observation takes single photos throughout the night, each one of them involving 10 minutes of exposure time. The first three out of four photos are taken with respectively three filter elements (so-called RGB filters: red, green, blue), which are automatically swiveled in front of the camera lens. These black and white images can later be sewn together by computer into a true color image.

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Mark Hellweg Horse Head Nebula astrophotography studio
Horse Head Nebula, Photography on Canvas, 19.5″ x 29.5″
Mark Hellweg Great Orion Nebula astrophotography studio
Great Orion Nebula, Photography on Canvas, 47″ x 71″

In order to achieve an overall exposure time of more than 12 hours, the same object in the sky often has to be photographed many times over multiple nights. At best, hundreds of 10 minute photos are obtained, which are then layered into one complete image by the computer in a complex and laborious process. Only then is a first impression of the final image obtained. This process is based on scientific principles and unfortunately, not so much on one’s own creativity. The most pleasant moment during an astronomical night is when the technology is finally running smoothly on its own, and I can lean back for a while and simply enjoy the stars twinkling in the sky.

Occasionally, I hear some subtle rustling in the bushes or a night owl making its rounds. These are moments when one understands that everything can work together in one interaction. Even after more than 30 years, the creation of astrophotography is still a thrilling and absorbing experience that binds me in a very particular way, and I feel lucky to be able to share this passion with the world.

 

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Mark “Brightway”Hellweg’s world is not limited to skies: he is also a strong landscape photographer. Visit Mark’s ARTmine page to see the collection and purchase his artwork.

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