Astronomy Photographer in Iraq Captures The Heavens
Mahmood Abdullah – Kirkuk – Yalla
“The stars we see today might not be there to see when we wake up tomorrow: some of the celestial bodies we see are light that started travelling thousands of years ago and reached us only today.” 27 year-old Karam Abdulrazaqi tells Yalla as he fixes his camera to a telescope and directs it towards the sun, hoping to capture images of solar flares near the surface of our celestial body.
Karam says it was a coincidence that motivated him to enter the field of astronomy photography in 2013, when he was on a trip in Sulaymaniyah with his colleagues from the Iraqi Photographers Union. He had taken a photo of the Milky Way which attracted a lot of attention, which motivated him to research how to take better photos of the night skies.
During his research he realised that Iraqi photographers have shown little interest in this field, so he began to take astronomy photographs whilst studying and the stars and astronomy photography with help from Iraqi and Arab photographers and astronomers.
“At first I thought astronomy photography would be easy and I could use long lenses up to 400 mm to capture the stars. But I quickly discovered that this type of photography isn’t possible using standard lenses, as the quality will be low and the cost high,” Karam says. “The solution is using a telescope and special filters that reduce light pollution or dedicated astronomical filters.”
Karam admits that astronomy photography is more expensive than normal photography. He needs deep pockets to swallow not just the cost of the specialised equipment but also the cost of couriering it from abroad. The lenses and telescopes are available on the local market due to the lack of interest in astronomy. Karam estimates he pays double when the transport dollars are factored in. Additionally, there are security obstacles when the unusual cargo arrives at the airport.
“There are three types of telescopes used in astronomy photography and observatory, the first is a reflecting telescope, which I use. Curved mirrors reflect light and form an image, it’s lightweight and has a longer focal length. The second type is a refracting telescope which has lenses similar to normal cameras, a shorter focal length, and they are heavy and expensive. Finally there is the catadioptric [hybrid] system, which uses a mix of reflector and refractor elements in its design. These take better quality photos, have a longer focal length, are small in size, and are more similar to recognisable photography lenses.”
Karam takes two types of astronomy photographs: images of planets such as Mars, Saturn and Jupiter which are carried in a single frame. Photos of galaxies and nebulas need observation and monitoring, with the telescope moved at specific times and directions to capture the light. The photos are then stitched together using software to produce one image.
“One of the things that motivates me to take photos of stars is that the light we see is very old, I am taking photos of the past. There are many stars and galaxies that have probably exploded or have been swallowed by a black hole but we still see them and they will disappear after a while. NASA has released information on what has happened to a number of stars and galaxies. I try to capture images that can’t be ever captured again.”
Karam says he was lucky to capture images of Comet Lovejoy which flew past earth on 30 January 2015 as this won’t happen again for another 1400 years. He has also photographed the Orion Nebula, Heart and Soul nebulas, Veil Nebula, Andromeda Galaxy, Galaxy M81 and m82, Whirlpool Galaxy, and planets Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, as well as an eclipse and the alignment of planets.
“I dream of photographing the beautiful Sombrero galaxy, and – the dream of every astronomy photographer – the Eagle Nebula also known as the Pillars of Creation. Why? Because according to NASA there is a theory which suggest that there was an explosion in the Pillars of Creation and it was destroyed. The light reaching us from the past is about to disappear.”
Karam is working with a number of friends and colleagues to set up an association for astronomy photographers, which would be the first of its kind in Iraq. He has received support from the Kurdistan Regional Government and a number of countries. There was even a location allocated to build an observatory in Erbil’s Sami Abdulrahman Park but the project was suspended because of the ISIL attacks in Iraq and the economic crisis.