Shooting for the Stars - The New Indian Express

Shooting for the Stars

Published: 06th April 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 04th April 2014 11:30 AM

Distance makes the heart grow fonder, they say. And it couldn’t be truer with Gurgaon-based astrophotographer Ajay Talwar. With his objects of love situated over 4.2 light years from Earth, this 49-year-old ‘astronut’ chases star trails across the country to get up close and personal with the celestial beauties.

Be it filming stars above the snow-capped peaks of Nanda Devi or capturing the conjunction of Moon and Venus over the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna, Talwar and his gear have scaled heights, traversed miles and waited endless hours for that perfect shot. Biting cold and darkness notwithstanding, love for the moods and colours of the skies sees this self-taught astrophotographer through.

For Talwar, a manufacturer and dealer of telescopes, it all began on a night in 1987 when the Moon was occulting the Pleiades, a cluster of stars. Armed with a film camera, for the digital age was still at large, he headed to Nebasarai, on the outskirts of Delhi, to capture the phenomenon. Talwar exposed an entire film that night.

“The slide film had 36 frames, but there was only one frame which was loaded with stars. The film developer even dismissed it as ‘kachra’ but the Omega Centauri cluster was clearly visible in one of the frames. That has been my impetus to continue astrophotography till date,” he reminiscences.

In a country where filming the skies is not a widespread hobby, Talwar made his first friends in the field among officials of observatories across the country. In fact, the best of his works, titled ‘Pillars of Creation’, is a testament to the encouragement received from officials of Devasthal observatory in Nainital, where Asia’s largest telescope is being set up.

At the time the photograph was taken (in October, 2013), only pillars had been erected on the site. No camera would keep clicking the entire night on batteries and Talwar realised he needed a secure electric connection.

“The observatory provided me a UPS connection; they laid an electric line from about 200 metres away to the construction site. I framed my shot, set continuous exposures of 40 seconds and left the camera for the entire night. I used a Canon 5D-II and a 24-105 lens set at 24mm. Guess what, even in the morning, it was still clicking faithfully. The camera had shot more than 1,000 images all night. Of these, I blended 852 images to make this image which spans more than nine hours,” Talwar explains.

The lone Indian among contributors to the global astrophotography portal ‘The World at Night’, Talwar specialises in night landscape photography, framing monuments and structures against a backdrop of the night sky. In search of clear skies, devoid of light pollution and clouds, Talwar often travels to Hanle in Ladakh, the Hatu peak in Himachal Pradesh, Alwar in Rajasthan and even the great white desert at the Rann of Kutch.

All for kindling the passion for the stars in others, Talwar has a few tips for beginners. “A digital SLR camera, tripod and an intervalometer to keep the camera open for long exposures is all you need. Travel to a remote spot at night and have a continuing passion of the unusual, whatever it takes. A good astrophotographer is one who can take the scientific aspects and infuse art into it”.

Talwar’s photographs have been exhibited in Kolkata, Bangalore and Mumbai as part of a pan-India photo festival. His astronomical exploits are best in a seven-and-a-half minute video titled ‘Star Trails of India’ which is doing the rounds of social media. The video is a compilation of 8,198 images, spanning 104 hours of night sky, shot at six locations across the country over three years.

One for sharing his love for the stars, Talwar has successfully conducted six ‘Sky Photo Trips’ over the years, the most recent being a trip to a small village called Majkhali in the Himalayas in March.

Putting in words the sight of a sky filled with stars from the Nanda Devi on the horizon to the zenith, he quotes, “3 am. The chill of the clear, moonless night crackles joyfully, with the widely varied chortling of a lone mockingbird. Ah, I agree, sweet bird. Life is too short to waste sleeping”.

Talwar’s tips for beginners

■ Get a digital SLR camera, tripod and an intervalometer to keep the camera open for long exposures

■ Travel to a remote spot at night and track the unusual

■ Infuse art into the scientific aspects of astronomy

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