the lede

Shooting the Sky

The patient and persistent ways of the astrophotographer

By AAYUSH SONI | 1 January 2013

CB DEVGUN WAS A SCHOOL STUDENT in Paharganj, Delhi, when he began to be fascinated by the sky. Although his science textbooks were bland, he found himself drawn to the sections on astronomy. Devgun also found encouragement from within his family. “My uncle was a senior scientist with the Chandigarh-based Central Scientific Instruments Organisation,” Devgun recalled. “He gave me two telescope lenses—one, an eye piece, and the other an objective lens, the lens responsible for gathering light from the object.” Using these lenses and some PVC pipes, the enterprising young Devgun put together his first telescope; through it, he gazed skywards and began to study the patterns of the stars.

Over the years, Devgun’s passion for watching the sky grew stronger. In 1987, when he was in his twenties, Devgun decided to go further, and capture the images he saw—he bought a second-hand camera from Chandni Chowk, connected it to his homemade telescope and began to take pictures of the sky. It was his first step into the world of astrophotography.

Astrophotography can be divided into two broad categories: earth-and-sky and deep-sky photography. The former involves shooting celestial objects against a terrestrial backdrop—such as a monument or a mountain range—while the latter involves capturing star trails, clusters and galaxies. Examples of both were seen at the recent India Astrophoto Festival, the first of its kind, held in Delhi in December. Devgun, who gave a presentation of his work at the workshop inaugurating the festival, believes that astrophotography is one of the most challenging fields of photography. “The objects are up there in the sky and so far away that no illumination would work for them,” he said. “So the challenge is to handle the low levels of light.”

When he first started out, Devgun also faced challenges getting his photographs developed. “If you went to any of these photo labs, they wouldn’t understand what’s there [in the photo],” Devgun said. “For example, if you shoot the stars in the dark skies, they’d give you the roll back and say it’s all underdeveloped because they’d only see small dots.” Devgun roped in his younger brother, who had studied art and learnt how to develop photographs, and the two set up a dark room in their house to develop Devgun’s pictures.

Over the years, Devgun’s interest in astronomy and astrophotography has deepened through his involvement with bodies like the Amateur Astronomers Association of Delhi (AAAD), whose members regularly meet and exchange notes about astrophotography at the Nehru Planetarium. The AAAD has also nurtured the passion of 24-year-old Atish Aman, who joined it after watching the comet Hale-Bopp cross the smoggy skies of Delhi in 1998. Aman was exposed to photography through his father, who pursued it as a hobby. When he was in the eighth standard, Aman did his first astrophotography shoot—of the moon with a cityscape of Delhi below. In the years since, he has honed his photography skills by shooting landscapes as well as doing some amateur documentary photography.

Unlike Devgun, who does the bulk of his astrophotography shooting in Delhi, Aman also travels to different parts of India for his shoots. He recounted that shooting the night sky at Pindari glacier was particularly challenging. “I was there through the night with only a friend for company,” he said. “The temperature over there was minus ten degrees Celsius and all I had with me was a two-litre water bottle that got frozen within an hour.” The image Aman captured that night was a 360-degree view of the snowy peaks of Nanda Kot, Nanda Khat and Baljuri. “Normally, if you go to a hill station the peaks [you see] are very far [from you],” he added. “But in my image the mountains are all around me.”

Devgun believes earth-and-sky photographs help frame familiar sights, such as monuments, in a new visual context. “When people see our images, they see the whole scenario in a different perspective,” Devgun said. “I had shot one photograph of the whole sequence of the lunar eclipse with the Shanti Stupa at Millenium Park in the foreground. At first, those who saw the image couldn’t understand it but then you explain it to them, they think it’s an extension of abstract art. So they’ve started to enjoy these things.”

Aayush Soni is a Delhi-based freelance journalist and a former writer at Time Out Delhi. He graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2012.


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