Sci­ence and art

Kaye Davis talks to Andrew Camp­bell about ex­plor­ing out-of-this-world pho­tog­ra­phy and how he cap­tured Cos­mic Bub­ble

The Shed - - Column - Kaye Davis

Some­thing I have al­ways loved about pho­tog­ra­phy is the way it al­lows us to cap­ture and see what we wouldn’t nor­mally see with the naked eye. It was this that drew me to dab­ble in the world of mi­cro­scopic pho­tog­ra­phy, in­clud­ing us­ing a scan­ning elec­tron mi­cro­scope, and ra­di­og­ra­phy (bet­ter known as X-ray) a num­ber of years ago. Through this in­ter­face be­tween sci­ence and art, we are able to ex­plore and re­veal the world’s small­est, and nor­mally un­seen, won­ders.

Sev­eral vis­ual pi­o­neers have tran­scended the worlds of sci­ence and art — to name a few: Harold Edger­ton, renowned for his Milk Drop Coronet and his im­age of the bul­let shot through an apple; Al­bert Richards for his amaz­ing flo­ral ra­dio­graphs; Anna Atkins for her botan­i­cal cyan­otypes; Ead­weard Muy­bridge, with his study of an­i­mal and hu­man move­ment; Rose-Lynn Fisher and her mi­croscopy of the bee; and Rob Kes­seler with his beau­ti­ful scan­ning elec­tron photograph­s of flow­ers.

Ex­plor­ing these worlds high­lights the power of pho­tog­ra­phy, its unique and mag­i­cal abil­ity to pro­vide us with im­ages and in­sight into what ex­ists within our world and be­yond. In turn­ing his eyes (and cam­era) up­wards, that is ex­actly what multi-award­win­ning photograph­er and Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Pro­fes­sional Pho­tog­ra­phy (AIPP) Grand Mas­ter Andrew Camp­bell is now do­ing as he ex­plores the won­ders of the night skies, search­ing for and pho­tograph­ing what are known as ‘deep-sky ob­jects’ (DSOs).

He’s a re­cent con­vert; Camp­bell’s ad­ven­tures in as­tropho­tog­ra­phy came about by ac­ci­dent af­ter a friend brought around an old tele­scope think­ing that it would be great for him to use to show his kids the moon. Af­ter a month or so, the chil­dren lost in­ter­est, but Camp­bell was hooked, and there com­menced what was to be a very steep learn­ing curve, not to men­tion the out­pour­ing of thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of equip­ment and soft­ware.

Par­tially sparked by an in­ter­est in sci-fi, Camp­bell’s on­go­ing in­ter­est in as­tropho­tog­ra­phy comes largely from the ac­tual experience of be­ing out there un­der the stars on a clear night.

“You can’t help but ask your­self the big ques­tions about life and the uni­verse and ev­ery­thing. I’m a Chris­tian, but, what­ever you be­lieve, you can’t help but be moved by the sheer scale of what’s above. To be able to doc­u­ment in an artis­tic way some of the DSOs is, for me, a chance to glo­rify God’s cre­ations, an op­por­tu­nity to ex­press my­self both cre­atively and tech­ni­cally,” he ex­plained.

There are a num­ber of chal­lenges with as­tropho­tog­ra­phy, the first found in choos­ing a DSO that is not overly pop­u­lar. For this, Camp­bell pores over galac­tic cat­a­logues and plan­e­tar­ium apps, which he de­scribed as “the equiv­a­lent of Google Maps for the sky”, to iden­tify unique ce­les­tial el­e­ments. Cos­mic Bub­ble (above), is one such ex­am­ple, and his im­age is one of only 12 known photograph­s of this “ex­tremely faint, rel­a­tively un­known” DSO.

The hunt for Cos­mic Bub­ble has been Camp­bell’s great­est challenge, as it is in­cred­i­bly hard to find and in­sanely dim. How­ever, a 20-minute search did yield what he de­scribed as the “barest hint of an out­line of the bub­ble”. His ini­tial ex­cite­ment rapidly di­min­ished when he re­al­ized it was go­ing to take a lot of ex­po­sure. A sec­ond challenge is the need for in­cred­i­ble pa­tience and tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, which Camp­bell seems to have in abun­dance. Re­quir­ing a great deal of pre-plan­ning, this starts with com­pos­ing the DSO for the most dra­matic ef­fect.

The ac­qui­si­tion of Cos­mic Bub­ble took over a month, and, dur­ing this time, Camp­bell cap­tured around five nights’ worth of data through nu­mer­ous ex­po­sures, each last­ing up to 30 min­utes, us­ing three dif­fer­ent wave­length fil­ters (R, G, and B). The fi­nal stage re­quired com­bin­ing many of the ex­po­sures, a process he de­scribed as an art in it­self.

Camp­bell’s im­age of Cos­mic Bub­ble (cat­a­logued as Sharp­less 308) is a beau­ti­ful ex­am­ple of pho­tog­ra­phy’s con­nec­tion with both sci­ence and art. Sci­en­tif­i­cally, it is a shell of ion­ized oxy­gen, 60 light years across; a neb­ula, with an es­ti­mated age of 70,000 years, “blown by the fierce winds of the huge Wolf–Rayet star at the cen­tre”, and, “like any good bub­ble, this one will even­tu­ally burst and dis­perse its stel­lar ma­te­rial into the sur­round­ing space, then ex­plode as a su­per­nova.” The im­age could just as eas­ily hang on the wall as an art piece.

In ad­di­tion to the con­sid­er­able tech­ni­cal know-how needed, it’s the cre­ative as­pect that re­ally makes Camp­bell’s ce­les­tial photograph­s stand out in the crowd. Af­ter only three years as an as­tropho­tog­ra­pher, he has al­ready re­ceived recog­ni­tion for his blend of sci­ence and art, in­clud­ing be­ing awarded 2015 AIPP Sci­ence, Wildlife and Wild Places Photograph­er of the Year and win­ning the Deep Sky cat­e­gory of the 2015 David Malin Awards.

You can fol­low Camp­bell’s as­tro ad­ven­tures on Face­book — search for ‘Andy’s Astropix’.

Andrew Camp­bell

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