West Country astrophotographer Josh Dury was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Astronomy Photographer of the Year award. We go stargazing with Josh to find out more about the wonder of this mysterious celestial world…
Hosted by The Royal Observatory of Greenwich, only 140 images are shortlisted from over 4000 submitted. It’s the biggest astrophotography competition and globally acknowledged as the finest. Representing the South West is Josh Dury with his image The Enigma of the North. On a starry night, high on a hill in the Mendips, we find out more about Josh’s work.
What first inspired you to become an astrophotographer, and how did you get started? I became interested in astrophotography at the age of seven years old, having been inspired by children’s science fiction programmes. These are largely about the planet Mars, however this inspired me to get a telescope and look up to the stars. At that moment in time the planet Jupiter was visible in the night sky, and when I saw it for the first time it captivated me. It all started from here. I wanted to document this experience somehow, so I turned to astrophotography.
Can you share some of your favourite astrophotography locations and explain what makes them ideal for capturing the night sky? Where’s the best dark sky location in the West Country? My homelands – the Mendip Hills near the Chew Valley – have some of my favourite astrophotography targets. This is because we are fortunate enough here to have dark skies. Because of the light pollution emitted from nearby towns and cities, the Mendip Hills is a really special place. Not only is it an area of outstanding natural beauty and a place of special scientific interest, it is an open window to the Universe – allowing us to look up to the night sky in its entirety.
What kit bag do you typically use to capture your images of stars, planets, and other celestial objects? Depending on what I decide to shoot, I use a variety of different cameras, lenses and equipment. Normally when taking images of the night sky, I like to concentrate on the composition, because that is what tells the narrative of the image, and is the reason for taking the photograph. Whereas if you are taking images of the moon you use a much narrower field of view to capture large open shots of the moon.
How do you plan your astrophotography sessions? A lot of planning can go into these images. The first thing to think about in the United Kingdom is the weather. You need to have a clear sky. Next, I look at the phase of the moon and shoot when the moon normally tends not to be visible. I then determine the levels of light pollution in the area which is measured by the bortle scale between the scale of 1-9, with 1 being a dark sky and 9 severely light polluted. It really depends what I want to shoot, but again the subject, and where it’s located can largely tell the story.
Like your shortlisted image The Enigma of the North on Lewis, how do you incorporate the natural scenery or foreground interest into your astrophotography compositions? I strongly believe the experience is just as important as taking a photograph. This is why I like to be connected with my subjects to understand what is possible from a certain location. For example, my photograph of the Enigma of the North came from receiving Aurora alert notifications on my mobile phone. At a time when the skies were clear, which can be rare for the outer Hebrides, I knew I needed to find a composition that captured the dark skies of the United Kingdom. This is where I really wanted to capture a beautiful image of the Milky Way against the Callanish stones. My own interest in stone circles and ancient sites is what brought me to Callanish. Only then to realise the Aurora Borealis could be seen low down on the horizon, so to combine my aspirations for astrophotography and ancient sites was a treat like no other.
Could you describe one of your most memorable astrophotography experiences? My most memorable experience in my astrophotography career was when I took the photograph of Llanddwyn Bay on the Isle of Anglesey. The night I took this photograph I walked onto the island; no problem whilst the tide was out. However in the time it took me to catch the images of the Lighthouse with the backdrop of the Milky Way, I was greeted to a body of water. I had isolated myself on the island! I had to wait four hours for the tide to retreat before it was safe enough to cross the shore.
Do you have any favourite events or celestial phenomena that you look forward to photographing each year? Some of my favourite astronomical events to capture are the Northern Lights and eclipses. The reason? Because they are events within the astronomical calendar that do not occur very often and special arrangements need to be made to go and see them.
How do you balance astrophotography with daily life? One thing I have learnt is that there are days where you have to burn the candle at both ends. Sometimes you can be shooting really early in the morning hours, and before you know it clear skies are forecast and you can be shooting again in the evening, so really your life is controlled by the weather.
How has shooting the stars enriched your connection to the night sky and your awareness of the natural world around you? As you become more closely connected with the stars, you realise your routes and where you come from. This is how I got interested in stone circles in ancient sites, recognising their astronomical alignments. This developed my understanding of how far we have come, recognising the close relationship we have with the Cosmos. Only once we realise our night skies are under threat, do we consider the impact that light pollution is having on our natural environment. In my work as a delegate of the International Dark Skies Assocation I realised that this not only concerns astronomers and our view of the universe, it also affects nocturnal wildlife and pollinators as well as ourselves and our human health. It is a big and newly emerging climate issue and a story which I strive to tell through my photography.
How does it feel to be shortlisted for for the Royal Observatory Astronomy Photographer of the Year? To have been shortlisted was massively emotional. When I took the photograph I had not picked up a camera in six months, and I believed my astrophotography career was over. But if anything else, it made me stronger and I put all of the energy I had into that one photograph. So when I received an email (in my spam folder) saying that I was shortlisted, I was moved to tears. I had previously been shortlisted for the competition in 2017 with my image of Glastonbury Tor and the double flash which captures a rare astronomical phenomenon. I didn’t realise the media attention it would get. For my work to have been recognised by the media, from the BBC to ITV and CNN in America has been a massive deal, having been invited to interviews with major television and radio outlets as well having my work published. From this, my work and photography has enabled me to become an ambassador for major photography brands such as Sigma and Benro.
When I went to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum, I was greeted by some of the big guns of the astrophotography community. To meet like-minded people and to see my photograph obtain the recognition it deserves was a special experience – and to see my image amongst the greats in the hall of fame.
If you could choose a dream location to capture your next amazing image, where and what would it be? I could go on forever about dream astrophotography locations. The first one is to capture an annular solar eclipse, which will occur next year across South America and Easter Island. To photograph the celestial connection between the Moai Statues and the eclipse would be absolutely spectacular, not to mention future opportunities to catch the Northern Lights and to have some of the leading astronomical observatories of the world as subjects. It would make me feel closer than ever to the stars.