We've all seen those stunning photos of the night sky or a distant nebula; they're breathtaking and beautiful – but have you ever wondered how those photos are taken? Maybe you've even considered whether you could make a career out of taking space photos, similar to wedding, portrait or nature photographers.
Space photography (or astrophotography) is both an art and a science, and photos of space are in high demand as humanity turns its attention to the stars, moon and Mars. But can you build a career as a professional astrophotographer?
We talked to two professionals to find out. David Blanchflower is an astrophysicist and prize-winning astrophotographer and Will Gater is an astronomer, science journalist and astrophotographer. Together they provide multiple perspectives on the prospect of becoming a professional astrophotographer and what you can expect if you pursue this as a career.
Getting the Right Gear
While knowledge, talent and patience are important, gear is what distinguishes the professional astrophotographer from the amateur and it usually requires a financial investment.
"You can do great astrophotography with just a smartphone camera," says Gater, via email. But "for typical professional work you'll need something that can shoot print-resolution images of a high quality that can be used in large formats – coffee table books, magazine double-page spreads, even 4K TV, that sort of thing. Most of the time I'm using a full-frame DSLR that gives an image around half a meter [20 inches] across when printed at 300 dpi."
The Royal Museums Greenwich also recommends the DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera because it lets photographers keep the shutter open for long periods. "This is ideal for shooting a dark night scene, when as much light as possible is needed to capture faint or distant objects," the website says.
Blanchflower agrees. "For people starting out, get a DSLR with a range of lenses, to take pictures from wide angle to close-up. One of the best ways to identify a good camera is by looking at some of the astrophotographers you admire and asking what gear they started on and what they use now. A good tripod is a must too," he says via Twitter.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Good equipment isn't the only resource you need to become a professional space photographer; you also need time to get good at astrophotography: "It's a case of just keep practicing, keep trying new things. Always think about what it is you're trying to convey with a photo and how you're going to pull and direct, the viewer's eye into the shot. So, this means thinking a lot about composition," says Gater. "You can even use planetarium software to work out what you can image and how to frame it before any trip out under the stars – it makes a massive difference. Sometimes I've planned photos years in advance!"
Learning post processing is also a huge part of producing the images, according to Gater. "The technical, practical stuff can be learned through repeated practice and there is a huge amount of info online and in magazines that can supplement this too."
Generally, space photographers work only under dark clear skies. "It can be incredibly frustrating when you must rely on good weather," says Blanchflower. "Patience and persistence are key."
The Job Market for Astrophotographers
Despite being a well-known and well-paid astrophotographer, Gater admits that it is not his "day job" – or even his every night job. "Most of the time I work as an astronomy journalist, with other media and public engagement projects mixed in with that," he says. "My professional astrophoto work kind of fits in around it. There are literally thousands of great astrophotographers out there doing brilliant work. I have no idea how many are doing astrophotography as a full-time job though."
Blanchflower agrees. "There are many people taking this type of pictures, especially for free, so [there is] a lot of competition out there if you try to make money doing it."
For most astrophotographers, their income is likely supplemented with other work. If photography is your passion, consider combining astrophotography with other work, as Blanchflower advises. "To make a living isn't easy. [It's] probably best to combine freelance astrophotography with other types, like weddings say," he notes.
"For me, astrophotography is one strand of my wider freelance work, so it's not the only thing I do," shares Gater. "And I'm lucky that I've been able to build up great working relationships with various editors, publishers and producers over the years, who I enjoy collaborating with immensely."