Shooting the sky: Meet the women astrophotographers capturing the beauty of the Milky Way in Qatar
It’s new moon day and that season again. She double-checks her camera, carefully attaching the wide-angle lens. She keeps extra memory cards, batteries, a headlamp, a remote, and an intervalometer in the separate padded sections in the backpack, before slipping the tripod in the dedicated attachment. She’s all geared up to travel from Doha to a location with the least light pollution. She and her three friends have waited for this day and are excited to be under the stars, staying the whole night out in the desert, capturing the stars.
The moment her friends arrive, she hops into the car and heads straight out of the capital city of Qatar. The sun has already set and after a ride of nearly two hours, they reach the desired location, right before the Milky Way galaxy rises. There’s no light in sight, there’s no moon, and it’s doubly invisible. It is the best time to view other celestial objects. It’s that perfect time when astrophotographers eagerly wait for the whole month to view and capture the eternal beauty of the night sky.
“The serenity of being in a place where you’re one with nature is unexplainable. In Doha, you barely get to see any stars because of the city lights. From where we shoot, everything is visible. We get surprised every time we take the first step out of the car as we can immediately see the sky filled with stars, sometimes planets,” says Kryzelle Cane Collamar, an accountant by profession.
A native of Masbate in the Phillippines, the 29-year-old Cane started to capture the Milky Way galaxy two years after her arrival in Qatar in 2016. “It’s a rewarding experience. Not many people go to this length just to capture a photo. The outcome is worth it,” she tells Euronews Culture.
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Pitch-dark spots in Qatar
When it comes to the night sky nothing can beat the different types of deserts of Qatar. They’re not only the best spots for some incredible views of the stars in the country, but also for taking photos of the Milky Way galaxy, star trails, and deep sky, or to simply sit at one of the many pitch-dark spots, watching the earth spin, making it look like the stars are moving through the night sky just above our head.
“It’s the experience, really. Seeing a night sky full of stars reminds me of my home country. I used to travel intensively and hike as much as possible before. Taking Milky Way photos is like taking postcards of the experience with me as I go back to city life,” says Ma Kristina Cuenca, a sonographer, residing in Qatar since 2018.
During those new moon days each month -- from March to October -- women photographers head out with friends or families to one of the pitch-dark places in Qatar such as Al-Aamriya, Al-Thuraya, Al-Kharrara, Al-Zubara, Zekreet, Khor Al-Udaid, Galactic Core Bay, and others to capture the core of the Milky Way.
Don’t click, make images
Often people say, ‘what’s the big deal in taking a Milky Way picture? You put a wide-angle lens to a camera, mount it on a tripod, point it at the sky and you have amazing images!’ They’re right, they’re wrong. In fact, it’s as easy as that and as difficult as that. Not many see that the night sky images are not clicked, but made. To make a picture of stars or planets as pleasing as one sees on the Internet, a lot of work goes behind – from scouting a good location to the right camera and lens, and most importantly, the composition.
“Taking Milky Way photos in itself is a process. And it involves a lot of patience and sometimes, luck. From planning to preparation to monitoring and execution… all steps are necessary if you really want to get a compelling one. Nevertheless, the output image is worth all the undertakings,” says 30-year-old Kristina, hailing from Cavite in the Philippines, who started taking night sky images on her smartphone in 2016.
Although it is interesting to take pictures at night, everything changes at that time -- the landscape, the colours, and the light are all different from the daytime. Even though the place is the same, it looks very different at night. Settings used in the morning will not work at night. It goes without saying that astrophotography is not easy, it’s an Augean task. It needs everything to be faultless -- neither the settings nor the camera or the telescope can shake.
However, these women stand ready for the battle, focusing on the sky to capture the stars. There’s nothing but only darkness around. After five to six minutes, not just the eyes but even the mind is all set for a new adventure in the dark. “The things you can’t see sometimes, your camera captures it well for you. So many unknown realities and scenes can be captured on a dark night,” says Manjari Saxena, a freelance photographer in Doha.
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Even though the number of women in the field of astronomy has seen a rise gradually, the field still remains dominated by men and astrophotography is no exception. The award-winning landscape and astrophotographer, Isabella Tabacchi, based in Italy, feels “there are more and more women interested in this field”. She has noticed the ratio of women photographers consistently increasing over the past few years.
“I started to capture nocturnal landscapes because the night sky is more mysterious and with so many things to know about it. I think a lot of curious women like me would love astrophotography and I know several women that love astrophotography much more than normal landscape photography,” Isabella tells Euronews.
Unlike western countries, Qatar has not more than 4-5 women astrophotographers. This is not because women are less interested in this field, but because, “opportunities are less,” notes Manjari, the 44-year-old native of Delhi in India.
Most of the women photographers in Qatar like elsewhere feel safety is the major concern that stops them from pursuing their dream hobby. “Family responsibilities”, non-availability of “toilets”, unable to “drive 4x4” in the rocky terrain, “distance” from the place of living, and fear of “supernatural” elements are some common challenges they face. They have to heavily depend on fellow male photographers to reach the locations and be at their mercy to get back to the city.
“Being safe at night is probably the major concern and I have been invited to several panels discussing how we can approach this issue. Solutions that have been discussed include shooting in groups, attending female-oriented workshops, and ways to be more aware of your surroundings,” says Imma Barrera, the author, and astrophotographer based in New York, whose work ‘Under the Night Sky’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Sony World Photography Awards.
While men give lame excuses that women photographers can’t travel to remote and difficult-to-reach places to take night sky photos, women feel the other way around. They are more than brave and happy to take on such adventures and it is the reluctance of men to give them a chance that is stopping them.
“I know some male astrophotographers whose non-photographer girlfriends/wives will join them when they go out to shoot. I have met very few women astrophotographers whose partners will join them at night,” says Imma, who also runs educational programmes and workshops about astrophotography.
Fun and frustration
It's no secret that the experience with night sky photography can be both fun and frustrating. One has to accept the truth that astrophotography is the most difficult form of photography, and going out at night without proper research can be frustrating. No amount of caution is enough as pictures have to be taken at night. There’s always the haunting fear of unwanted people, snakes, scorpions, spiders, insects, and foxes in desolate places.
“Once we climbed a big sand dune. It was pitch dark around. We had no idea where we were stepping into or how far we were. We just wanted a photo of the Milky Way with that sand dune in the foreground. Then suddenly, I almost fell on my face. I tumbled down as it was the edge of the dune. But my reflexes saved me,” adds Cane.
Some nights will be more successful than others, photographers get the images they want, and some nights no image comes out right. But every time the experience of seeing and capturing the night sky cannot be described in words, it has to be experienced. What could be more satisfying than capturing beautiful images of celestial bodies that most people overlook?
If it’s so difficult to capture the Milky Way, why do these women chase them month after month? There is a reason for this madness. Each picture they take becomes closer to the heart than any Hubble image seen on the Internet, making the stars shining bright in the vastness of the universe more real. Seeing the magnificence of the Milky Way captured on camera is no less than an awe-inspiring experience.
Chaitra Arjunpuri is an author and photographer based in Qatar. She is interested in long exposure and night photography and you can see more of her work here.