These days when most people look at the night sky they aren’t able to see much of anything beyond a few blinking satellites as they slowly crawl by up above. This is due to pollution – light pollution, meaning the glare of the city’s lights makes it impossible to see the far-away stars – and air pollution, which is so heavy in some places that you can’t see much of anything at all, sometimes not even airplanes.
Out in the countryside, away from the urban interference, if you look up at the night sky you’ll be able to see hundreds of stars but seeing anything truly distant or in detail requires a telescope and some know-how.
That’s where astrophotography comes in handy. It uses technology and photographic technique to capture truly spectacular images of distant celestial bodies such as galaxies.
Now, a group of five local artists who share a passion for both photography and astronomy have come together to organise a first-of-its-kind astrophotography exhibition in Cambodia. The exhibition opened on January 15 with a workshop to introduce the art form.
“Unlike in Thailand and Vietnam, astronomy or astrophotography is not very popular here in particular, but we believe there are more people out there that share the same interests as us,” says Jiper “Sonic” Duran, one of the exhibition’s organisers.
Duran – who self-deprecatingly points out that he is neither an astronomer nor a photographer – says that he just loves science and especially studying what lies beyond our planet.
“The purpose of organising this event is to let our fellow space enthusiasts know that they are not alone,” Duran tells The Post.
Duran says everyone – but especially people interested in astronomy – are encouraged to visit the exhibition at Cloud, which runs until February 12.
“During the workshop at the opening we provided some basic information about astrophotography and explained what gear is needed. We also illustrated what can be taken using different kinds of imaging devices from Smart Phones, to DSLRs as well as with dedicated astrophotography set ups,” he says.
Duran and his fellow astrophotography enthusiasts convene online in their Facebook group “Astrophotography Cambodia”. The group promotes interest in astronomy in the Kingdom and tries to foster a spirit of camaraderie among those practicing astrophotography in Cambodia.
The actual exhibition consists of astrophotography prints by five different astronomer-artists and each of them took some time to tell The Post about their involvement in this unusual discipline.
Milky Way Galaxy artists-in-residence
The artists are all from different backgrounds and professions but they share the same ambitious goals of capturing images of objects distant from our world using various lenses and techniques and cameras that range from smart phones to professional DSLRs.
Chea Sereywat started out with just a smartphone
Sereywat – whose day job is working for DENSO Cambodia Co Ltd – has three years of experience in photography and two years specifically with astrophotography. He came across a night sky photography competition with global entrants and international photographers and wondered how they could capture things that people could never see with the naked eye.
“I started to learn how to take pictures with my smartphone. My most notable experience at that stage was when I captured my first picture of the Milky Way after waiting for 30 seconds exposure time. That picture led me down my current path,” he says.
Sereywat says that shooting stars are his favourite things to photograph and that he enjoys astrophotography in general because it allows him to see what can’t be seen with the naked eye.
Sereywat has nine photos in the exhibition and each of them was taken in a different place – including Rattanakiri, Battambang and Kampot – and of a different subject.
Suong Mardy images earthly subjects with celestial backgrounds
Mardy, a civil servant at the Ministry of Environment, has 11 years of astrophotography experience. In 2009 he decided to start shooting the stars with wide-field lenses after he saw some astrophotography photos on the 500px website. His first subjects were star trail and Milky Way photos.
Mardy says that he enjoys photographing subjects like temples, trees and waterfalls but he must first find subjects that are in dark places with good weather.
“I like to see the starry scenery and discover the night sky and the deep sky,” Mardy tells The Post.
He has nine photos in the exhibition and all of them are related to nature – trees, waterfalls and bodies of water – and they were taken in Koh Kong, Kampong Speu, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng and Kampot provinces.
Nara Tsitra was inspired by a friend
Nara was introduced to the astrophotography hobby a few years ago through Duran who showed him the equipment and how to take pictures of the stars at night.
“I was really amazed that capturing images of stars was actually fun for me and the best way to keep me busy when I have nothing to do at night,” says Nara, who has eight photos in the exhibition.
In the past, Nara spent his evenings playing guitar in local underground metal bands such as Sliten6ix and Reign in Slumber, but these days he’s enjoying quieter pursuits.
“It’s the only hobby that keeps me sober at night and it lets capture the amazing moments when the brightness of these stars arrive after travelling millions of light years towards Earth.”
Nara shot the Andromeda Galaxy on August 24, 2020, at his house in Phnom Penh by using a crop sensor mirrorless camera attached to his telescope along with a tracker.
“It was a little bit harder for me to spot the object due to heavy light pollution in the city and I don’t have an automatic tracker that helps me find my target easily,” he says.
He captured images of the Orion Nebula on August 18, 2020, at a resort in Kampong Cham using the same camera. He stayed up late setting up his equipment and finally got his shot around 5am.
“This is a hobby that can take some time and dedication, but when you finally capture an image of something really cool out there in space it’s totally worth it,” says Nara.
Lim Piak’s hobby is shooting everything – stars included
Poipet-based Lim Piak is self-employed and has been doing photography as a hobby for over a decade now.
He says that his interest in photography comes from the pursuit of refining his skills and honing his aesthetic to where he can take great photos with a unique look to them.
Piak has five photos in the exhibition that were taken at different landmarks in Cambodia and they required a lot of preparation and travel time to capture them. Some of the places he took photos at were Veal Thom at Vireak Chey national park, Preah Vihear Temple and Khnang Kroper.
“One of the best places to shoot the stars is Veal Thom. It has some of the darkest, clearest skies in the country. And my greatest once-in-a-lifetime encounter in astrophotography happened there at Veal Thom when we were able to shoot the Neowise Comet C2/2020 F3. That comet won’t be coming back for another 6800 years,” he says.
Sonic Duran always wanted to be a NASA scientist
Duran’s interest in astrophotography was sparked early one morning in December of 2018 when he woke to see three bright dots of light in the sky from his window.
He found out later that what he had seen were three of our solar system’s planets: Jupiter, Venus and Mercury, rarely visible together or to the naked eye, and he wished he’d been able to get pictures of them so he started learning about the process involved and building an imaging rig.
Eight of Duran’s photographs of deep sky objects are in the exhibition. Among them is the Crescent Nebula which Duran has taken 500 images of since 2020 using 300 second exposure times.
“The most notable and extremely rare events I’ve been able to capture were the Neowise and Leonard Comets and the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn,” Duran tells The Post.
Duran suggests that budding astrophotographers look for places that rank 1 or 2 on the Bortle scale used to measure the amount of light pollution in an area. He also advises finding a place that is open enough to see the entire night sky and where expensive camera equipment will be safe and secure – preferably with electricity and a place to sleep – and then of course you’ll also need good weather and a cloudless night.
“The opening night workshop went great and we are doing another one on a different topic related to astrophotography at Meta House in March when we move the exhibition there. If you are interested in astrophotography or you are thinking of getting into the hobby yourself then keep an eye on Meta House’s March events calendar,” Nara tells The Post.
The Astrophotography Cambodia Exhibition is open to the public at Cloud located at #32 Ke Nou St in Phnom Penh. It runs until February 12.
The exhibition will move to Meta House in March and the opening night there will feature another astrophotography workshop. Check their event calendar for the date.
Facebook: @cloudcambodia and @MetaHousePhnomPenh. Join the Astrophotography Cambodia Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/978675679179229/