The perfect shot: how to enter IAPY 2016

With the entry deadline looming for this year’s Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year Competition, photography expert and writer Lorin R Robinson talks to previous winners to get their advice on how to make sure your astrophotos stand out from the crowd.

BBC Sky at Night Magazine news editor Dr Elizabeth Pearson reveals the results of last year's competition

Many photographers might have the misconception that only scoped astrophotos are competitive as entries in the IAPY contest, but the fact is that images produced by the overall contest winners in the past three years have been shot camera-only. The competition, organised by the Royal Observatory Greenwich and sponsored by Insight Investments and BBC Sky at Night Magazine, routinely attracts over 2,000 international entries.
I spoke to the winners of the past three years to find out their recipes for success.

2015 Winner: Eclipse Totality over Sassendalen, Luc Jamet (France)

Credit: Luc Jamet

The total solar eclipse of March 20, 2015 seen from Svalbard - one of only two habitable locations that were able to witness totality - just 16 seconds after it began. The image shows totality above the large valley of Sassendalen situated on the only permanently inhabited island of the Norwegian archipelago. Venus can also be seen in the photograph as a bright spot in the upper left of the image.

Equipment: Canon EOS 7D DSLR, 16mm f/5 lens, ISO 200, 1/6-, 1/2 and 1.6-second exposures.
Luc says: “I’ve been actively shooting the starry sky for about 20 years. I use a scope when I can, but admittedly getting out with just my camera, a few lenses and a tripod is way easier and more comfortable. Plus, I live in town where light pollution is too strong to obtain satisfying pictures of faint, remote targets.”
Luc’s tips:
  • Stars are faint. Use a sensitive camera that you can set to high ISO (say, 800-3200) without producing too much noise. 
  • Fix it on a sturdy tripod and use a cable release to reduce vibrations. Expose for a few seconds at widest possible aperture. 
  • Your autofocus system will certainly be useless.  Focus manually and use your 'live view' mode if available. 
  • And, of course, always integrate an earthly foreground for the sake of composition.

2014 winner - Aurora over a Glacier Lagoon, James Woodend (UK)
Credit: James Woodend
British photographer James Woodend prevailed over a thousand amateur and professional photographers from around the globe to win the title of 2014 Astronomy Photographer of the Year. The judges were mesmerized by Woodend’s shot portraying a vivid green aurora dancing across the Icelandic night sky and reflected in the glacial Jökulsarlon lagoon of Vatnajökull National Park.
The aurora reflects almost symmetrically in the glacier’s lagoon. A complete lack of wind and current combines in this sheltered lagoon scene to create an arresting mirror effect, giving the image a sensation of utter stillness. Despite this, there is motion on a surprising scale as the loops and arcs of the aurora are shaped by the shifting forces of the Earth’s magnetic field.
Equipment: Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR camera, 24-70 f2.8 lens set at 33mm and f3.2, 10 second exposure. Shot in RAW. 
James says: “I have scoped as well but there are very few clear nights here in cloudy UK. That means travelling to where there is no light pollution and clear skies. Camera-only astrophotography is so light and it’s very easy to take abroad. I’m a retired teacher and physics graduate, so anything to do with astronomy I find very interesting. At the same time I have a love of the pictorial, so I’m always looking for strong compositions that show off some epic astronomical event.”
James’s tip:
  • Practice at home first until you can get pin sharp images of stars in your photographs before you venture further afield, looking for a great foregrounds to show off your night sky shots.

2013 winner - Guiding Light to the Stars, Mark Gee (Australia)

Credit: Mark Gee
The skies of the Southern Hemisphere offer a rich variety of astronomical highlights. The central regions of the Milky Way, 26,000 light years away, appear as a tangle of dust and stars in the central part of the image. Two even more distant objects are visible as smudges of light in the upper left of the picture. These are the Magellanic Clouds, two small satellite galaxies in orbit around the Milky Way.
Equipment: Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR camera, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 at 24mm.
Mark says: “My passion for shooting ‘the heavens’ began around 2009 when I took a trip to a coastal village a few hours from Wellington, New Zealand. It was dark there with no light pollution, and, when I looked up at the night sky and saw the glow from the galactic center of the Milky Way with the naked eye for the first time, I was totally blown away. I was hooked!”
Mark’s tips:
  • First, get out there and have a go. Astrophotography is probably one of the most frustrating forms of photography but when you do nail a shot, it’s highly rewarding.
  • Take time to plan and compose your shots: time to set up and test shoot before the night sky rotates out of your planned composition.
  • A sturdy tripod is a must. When you are out in the field you can weigh your tripod down with either a sand bag or rocks to help prevent camera shake.
  • Since you will be doing long exposures, you need to prevent vibration caused by the shutter release. Use either a cable release or your camera’s built in timer. You can also shoot in mirror lock mode or live view to prevent adding extra vibrations.
  • Shoot with everything on manual, including manual focus. Focusing on the stars is the thing most newcomers have issues with. I suggest using live view. Point your camera at the brightest star in the sky and magnify as much as you can. Rotate your focus ring until the star is pin sharp.

Entries for this year’s IAPY competition must be received before midday (BST) on 14 April 2016. There are nine main categories:        

Skyscapes - Landscapes and cityscapes of twilight and the night sky featuring the Milky Way, star trails, meteor showers, comets, conjunctions, constellation rises, halos and noctilucent (shining) clouds alongside elements of earthly scenery.
Aurorae - Photographs featuring auroral activity.
People and Space - Photographs of the night sky including people or a human interest element.
Our Sun - Solar images including solar eclipses and transits.
Our Moon - Lunar images including lunar eclipses and occultation of planets.
Planets, Comets and Asteroids - Everything else in our solar system, including planets and their satellites, comets and asteroids.
Stars and Nebulae - Deep space objects within the Milky Way Galaxy, including stars, star clusters, supernova remnants, nebulae and other intergalactic phenomena.
Galaxies - Deep space objects beyond the Milky Way Galaxy, including galaxies, galaxy clusters, and stellar associations.
Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year - Pictures taken by a budding astronomer under the age of 16.
There are also two special prizes:
The Sir Patrick Moore Prize for Best Newcomer is awarded to the best photo by an amateur who has taken up the hobby in the last year and who has not entered the competition before. Robotic Scope acknowledges the best photo taken using one of the increasing number of computer-controlled telescopes at prime observing sites around the world that can be accessed over the internet by members of the public.
The overall winner, selected from among all categories, will receive £10,000. Winners of all categories including the Young Astronomy Photographer of the Year will receive £1,500. There are also prizes for runners-up (£500) and highly commended (£250) entries. The Special Prize winners will receive £750.
All of the winners will receive a one-year subscription to BBC Sky at Night Magazine
Entries must be submitted by April 14. Winners will be announced at an award ceremony at the Royal Observatory Greenwich on September 15 and showcased in an annual free exhibition at the observatory starting September 17. 
Photographers can enter online by visiting Each entrant may submit up to five images.
A collection of last year’s prize winning images is still available to buy from the Royal Museums Greenwich online shop.

Lorin Robinson is a photography expert and writer.

All images are copyright their respective photographers


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