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Stars Over Atacama: Astronomical imaging at the European Southern Observatory

From building a back-garden observatory to shooting stars over the Atacama Desert.

Amateur astronomer Zdeněk Bardon was 15 when he bought his first real telescope, using money he received as an inheritance.

Made by the renowned Srb and Štýš company in Prague in the early 20th century, it marked the start of a lifelong love affair with the stars which has seen his photography used by NASA, in their high-profile 2018 announcement about Alpha Centauri, and featured by the BBC’s ‘The Sky at Night’, plus countless news organisations, and highlighted by equipment manufacturers (he still has the telescope, of course).

So just how all-encompassing is his passion for the stars?

“A few years ago, I built a fully robotic observatory in my garden,” says Zdeněk, an Affinity Photo user who lives in the Czech Republic.

“Without any assistance, it can capture images throughout the night, with the only human input being made from the comfort of the living room—hence, the nickname ‘Astronomy in Slippers’.”

The construction of Zdeněk’s observatory took more than eight years of work in the garage and has served as a model for much larger observatories over the entire world. But having a home set-up to envy hasn’t removed his appetite for exploring.

“I am an incredibly enthusiastic astronomer and, therefore, I can’t miss a single opportunity to capture an image of the Milky Way, especially in places where the night is so very dark. Luckily such opportunities often arise during my business travels.”

The images you see here were captured by Zdeněk during a trip to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in the southern Atacama Desert region of Chile.

Astronomer and the Universe in Motion - the ESO Observatory in La Silla, Chile. Camera: Nikon D810A, Lens: Zeiss Milvus 2,8/18.

“Due to its light pollution, Europe is far from being the perfect place for astronomy.”

The ESO is located at La Silla, which is a formidable 2,450m above sea level. Due to its remoteness, it’s not an easy task to reach the observatory.

“After the fifteen-hour flight, you find yourself in the middle of a stark desert,” says Zdeněk. “But as much as it may seem inhospitable, it’s a paradise to astronomers, rich with opportunities.”

The seclusion and the clear skies were among the main reasons ESO chose the location for its first base, which was set up in 1962. (Fifty years later, Zdeněk was involved in installing modern robotics.)

Zdeněk says: “It’s a place where the Milky Way throws a shadow spectacular. A place that prides itself on its dark blue hues and crystal-clear sky. Its special attributes come from the fact that Atacama, as one of the driest places on the planet, is very far from any cities and their light pollution.

“It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, especially for Europeans. To see Orion ‘upside down’ and drowning in thousands of stars, is an unforgettable experience.”

The equipment

Zdeněk says taking great images of the skies is not difficult, however it involves a notable amount of experience, a great deal of patience, and equipment (which must fit into a suitcase).

“The most important and essential part of equipment are the lenses. I use those of Carl Zeiss AG, namely ones from their Otus set, and a Nikon D810A camera designed specifically for astrophotography.”

The 85mm Otus is capable of capturing stars of up to 16.5 magnitude (perceived star size) per one pixel of the sensor.

Zodiacal light, the Moon and Airglow. Camera: Nikon D810A, Lens: Zeiss Otus 1,4/28.

As astonishing as this fact may be, such sensitivity is necessary to capture perfect images and later for editing.

“If you’re up for a real challenge, try capturing images of rare phenomenon such as Zodiacal light and Airglow (above).

“Capturing the fine structures of the Milky Way is also exceedingly difficult.”

Milky Way over the La Silla Observatories. Camera: Nikon D810A, Lens: Zeiss Milvus 2,8/18.

“Finally,” says Zdeněk; “for editing I use a few software applications but the main one is Affinity Photo. I purchased this software more than a year ago and I was amazed by its intuitiveness and how powerful the software is.

“It makes editing photos much faster and offers a very user-friendly interface with easy-to-navigate tool panels.”

Star Trails, over the SEST Radio Telescope

You can learn more about shooting star trails in this feature by Affinity Photo educator James Ritson.

Read next: Capturing a galaxy in a crystal ball.

PR manager

John heads up our public relations and is co-editor of Affinity Spotlight, as well as being responsible for a lot of what we post on our Facebook page and Twitter feed. When he’s not trying to charm journalists into giving us more great media coverage, or serving as butler to an elderly cat, his interests include music, Cuban cigars and American whiskey. Get in touch with John if you would like to contribute to Affinity Spotlight or have any press enquiries.

Credits & Footnotes

All images copyright Zdeněk Bardon, used with permission.