NIGEL A BALL - ASTROPHOTOGRAPHER
Published 21st May 2018
Nigel Ball’s love of astronomy and imaging led naturally to him shooting the stars – and now he’s using the D810A, Nikon’s first astro-customised DSLR, with stellar results
It was while watching coverage of the Apollo Moon missions in the late 1960s on the BBC that Nigel Ball's passion for astronomy was first piqued. His interest in photography was sparked just a few years later, as he helped his father – a keen amateur – to take close-ups of butterflies and moths, and to develop and print the results in their home darkroom. But it wasn't until the mid 2000s that a fortuitous combination of 'more free time and more disposable income' gave him the opportunity to combine his two loves by shooting the night sky, whether that's focusing on deep space images using his Takahashi FSQ106 telescope from his back-garden observatory, or out in the field capturing starry nightscapes.
Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2013 for his services to astrophotography and his public outreach work through his local astronomy society, Nigel is also now becoming increasingly known for his glorious nightscape images as well as those of outer space. His first Nikon camera was the D70, and he now uses the D3S and D800, but he has recently been test-driving the new D810A, a modified version of the acclaimed D810 that is engineered specifically for astrophotography.
I've always been interested in mathematics and science – in my day job I work with automation software – and I believe most of the natural world can be understood by these two disciplines. Astrophotography and night photography allow me to combine my love of maths, science and real-time software into one.
I first tried them two years ago, and my first thought was 'This is so much easier than astrophotography!' For a good astro shot, it can take years to compile enough data. 'Traditional' astrophotography cameras have sets of red, green, blue and luminance filters. A typical exposure is ten minutes on each filter, and you need at least 20 exposures for red, green and blue, and 50 for luminance. So, if you can get a clear night, you might get 15 done, and then you have to wait for a year to get exactly the same view and finish it all off. One shot of the Orion Nebula took me three years. The other problem is the light pollution – there's so much of it now, it makes astrophotography that much harder. So these days I'm doing far more nightscapes than astro. But I still love doing star trails.
The first things that strike you – apart from the 36-megapixel resolution – are the extremely low noise, and the fact that it's much more sensitive to hydrogen-alpha wavelengths, so you can see all the true colours of the nebulae. This is usually an issue with DSLRs, as they have a red-light reduction filter in front of the sensor to balance colours accurately for daylight imaging, and this cuts down on the transmission of light from the hydrogen-alpha wavelength, which is the wavelength of the red in many nebulae. On the D810A this filter has been modified so it's around four times more sensitive to these wavelengths. It's also got a long-exposure manual mode as well as Bulb, and you can take as many shots in continuous shooting mode as you can fit on your card, which is great for minimising gaps in star trails.
When I got back into photography ten years ago I started off with a Nikon D70, and I now shoot mainly with the D3S and the D800. The D3S is an amazing camera with an amazing sensor – it's only 12 megapixels, but they are very large pixels, like big buckets that can capture so much light, and you get great colour saturation with it. The 14-24mm f/2.8 is my main lens – it's very crisp.
I usually use specialist astrophotography cameras on my telescope, connected with a series of adapters, but I did try the D810A on it, attaching it with a T-ring, for a deep sky test, and the results were great – both in terms of colour and detail.
I have to fit it in around work, and it really depends on the skies, as obviously you want to do night shots and astrophotography when the moon's not up and the sky is clear. Some months I'm out ten nights, others just two. For me it usually involves a one to two-hour drive, a few hours taking pictures, and then back home.
The biggest challenge for night shots is finding locations. If I'm away with the day job, I'll check out potential sites before I go, and make a rough plan, then if conditions are right I can just turn up and press the button. Sometimes you'll get a couple of other photographers present, but as long as no one's using a torch to paint the scene with light, you're fine.
Shooting the aurora in Iceland was brilliant, but North Wales is a particular favourite location of mine – it's so close to where I live in Cheshire and the landscapes are fantastic. Recently I was doing a night shoot on Anglesey at Bryn Celli Ddu – a Neolithic tomb dating back to around 5000 BC, just over the Menai Straits – and was sitting there in awe, wondering about all those who had been there before me, all those thousands of years ago.
Last New Year's Eve I wanted to shoot the night sky from Snowdon. The forecast was good, but when I recced the route during the day it rained and hailed, and I ended up back on the coast in McDonald's in Bangor ringing mates and family to wish them happy New Year, waiting for a break in the weather. Conditions finally cleared, and in Bangor the stars looked like diamonds on black velvet. I drove five miles inland to Snowdon… and it started raining again! So I turned round, drove over to Anglesey and shot the Milky Way above Aberffraw Church for an hour or so. I returned to Snowdon just before midnight and got the most magical hour of shooting, followed by the aurora on the beach at Llanfairfechan. I finally drove home to Nantwich at 3am, and the first thing I saw there was a girl throwing up in the gutter.
For night shots you need to really think about the composition – you need some points of interest in the shot, so it's best to try out compositions beforehand. I'll try to go in daylight for a recce, but if that's not possible I start off with a few ISO 25,000 exposures to see how best to frame the scene. I prefer night landscapes, but I do some town and village scenes. For the Llandudno shot, I'd originally gone there to shoot the supermoon, but it was clouded over, so since I was there I thought I'd get a night shot over the town and the bay instead.
Light pollution is the number one problem for astrophotography – even in the depths of the countryside, a small village a few miles away can cause an orange glow. One of the darkest places I've ever been to is the Elan Valley in mid-Wales – it's officially the world's first public-access, privately owned Dark Sky Park. Typically for a night shot I'll expose for 15 minutes, but when I was shooting there recently I did a 30-minute exposure as part of a composite shoot. I'd already shot the dam and the Milky Way, and needed that long exposure to record the foreground and reflection in the reservoir, then blended them together in post-production.
Not that much, and what I do is mostly in Lightroom. I'll choose the best shots for the foreground and sky, process them to get the white balance matching, open them as layers in Photoshop, then blend them together, clean up any small blemishes, keyword them, and that's it.
Get out there and have a go. People think it's difficult, and yes, it's quite difficult to get really outstanding results, but it's not that hard to make a start.
I recently went to South Africa and got the chance to shoot the southern Milky Way and the Magellenic Clouds – two dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way that are only observable in the southern hemisphere. The people I was staying with assured me the place was pitch-black at night, but that turned out not to be entirely the case, and I wasn't able to get all the shots I wanted. So I'd love to get another chance to shoot in the southern hemisphere.