Fixation: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Nigel. How much planning is involved in your images?
Nigel A Ball: A huge amount. So, taking the Llanddwyn image [img. 7, above] as an example, the first thing I worked out is when the Milky Way was right using The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) app. I then worked out what time at night it would sit behind the lighthouse – and on that particular evening you can see the moon was setting, which was an added bonus. Because Llandwynn is a tidal island, I also needed to look at the tide tables to see exactly when I’d need to be there and, more importantly, when I’d need to get back. So there’s a lot involved. By the time I arrive all the planning has been done, so then it’s just a case of taking the picture.
F: You have a background in maths and science. How has that shaped your work?
NB: I have a mathematical chemistry degree, so what this allows me to do is to combine my love of maths, science and the natural world into one. I think without this my images would be different; I’ve seen so many night shots where people have just captured the sky, or used the land but badly composed the scene. Very often I’ll try to get to my location in the daytime, and wait for a couple of hours with coffee and biscuits until everything comes into place.
F: Do you think more people are interested in astrophotography now?
NB: Yes, everyone is at it. Even just on Facebook, there are hundreds and hundreds of people doing it. I think this is healthy though, and it’s very encouraging that a lot of younger people are getting involved too. It’s good to get them from looking at their phones to actually looking up at the sky for a change! It’s great that everybody can have a go – and obviously Photoshop allows you to do all sorts of wonderful things with the processing.
F: Is Photoshop what you use for processing?
NB: I pre-process my images in Lightroom first, applying keywords and so on, before opening them in Photoshop and using layers and blending for processing.
F: Do you think a greater number of people being involved it becomes more challenging to produce something unique?
NB: Yes it does. The problem I find is that technically competent isn’t always good enough when it comes to selling work, as people will tend to buy something that looks like you’ve been on an LSD trip. We’ve all seen night images that have been terribly over-processed, but they seem to sell. It’s quite a difficult ask sometimes; you have to decide whether you want to be a photographer’s photographer or a technical photographer.
F: What equipment do you use for your work?
NB: I use the Nikon D800 and D3s DSLRs, although recently I’ve been using the D810a too, which was loaned to me by Nikon. The majority of the astro images were captured with the D3s, which I use because of its larger pixels and its better sensitivity to low light. The only issue I have with it is when enlarging images, given its pixel count. I tend to use the D800 for daytime stuff, such as landscapes and panoramic shots. Basically, whenever I need the higher resolution. The Nikkor 14-24mm fƒ/2.8 AF-S G ED is the lens I use out of choice and I’ve also got a panoramic head that I use now and again. When the moon is out you have to be really careful with the moon hitting that lens, or even just stray light, as you always get the odd fisherman with his lights on. I tried the PC-E Nikkor 24mm f/3.5D ED lens a few weeks ago and had some great fun with it, and for night shots you can point it up at the sky without getting converging verticals (if I could correct this in Photoshop I would lose half the sky). It has possibilities but the 24mm is not quite wide enough to get enough sky into the shot.
F: What was your impression of the D810a?
NB: It’s pretty good but I think they need to modify a few things – although whether they’ll listen to me I don’t know! But my impressions of the model were very positive. Actually, Sky at Night magazine asked me to review the camera for them too, and that’s been published in this month’s issue.
F: You’ve also developed systems for deep sky imaging, is that right?
NB: Yes. So these use a standard Kodak or Sony sensor housed in a system that allows it to cool down to -20oC, so you don’t get all the amplifying noise and dark current. With a 20- or 30-minute exposure these sensors get hot, so you have to cool it down. I decided to experiment with using standard camera lenses instead of a telescope as I wanted a portable system to take away with me when going abroad. I can’t really take such a telescope together with a mount, tripod and a counterweight, so I tried to develop something more portable, based on Hasselblad lenses. And I got a quite nice little system going in the end, with automatic focusing using a cam belt and a motor.
F: What about the sensors?
NB: They’re not huge resolutions, only around 12MP, measuring 36x24mm (full frame). In fact, one is probably very similar to the sensor in the Nikon D3s. It’s got the same characteristics but no filters in front of it so that it picks up all wavelengths. Because you’re shooting at night you have a filter wheel in front of it to capture the wavelength you want. So, Hydrogen-alpha is 656nm, for example, and for narrowband imaging you capture Hydrogen-alpha lines, Sulphur-II and Oxygen-III. Obviously if you’re doing full-colour images you need red, green and blue, and luminance to give you the detail on top.
F: How long would it take to put a system like this together?
NB: I had to do a lot of calculations and get adapters made to mount the Hasselblad lens onto a 52mm screw thread, so it took a few months in total. I bought a load of lenses off eBay as they’re quite cheap now, before getting the stuff engineered by a local engineering company. I had to get them to understand what I was doing and that I wasn’t completely mad, just wanting to do something interesting. The first photo I took with it, I actually framed and gave them as a thank you.
F: How many of these systems have you developed to date?
NB: About two or three different systems. The trouble is I get bored – I develop them and then when they’re working it’s not as interesting for me!
F: Do you plan to continue developing further systems?
Yes, as new cameras come into the market. Most astro cameras are in the 3:2 format, but I love the square format, and there are some new sensors which are totally square. There’s just something about square images, I think they look so classic.
F: You started off using film. How has digital changed your approach?
NB: The main thing, of course, is that I know whether the shot has worked straight away, which is a huge thing. I remember years ago using film for star trails, I’d get the film back from being developed and found they hadn’t printed any images because they said there’s nothing there. I’d have to explain there was something on them – star trails. They thought it was a mistake! Now, I can take some images at a high ISO, say ISO 25,600, with a 20-second exposure fully open, and I can get an idea of how the finished shot will look, which is pretty amazing.
F: You gave a talk at [Fixation’s parent company] Wex Photographic recently. How did that come about?
NB: I was at the International Astronomy Show in Warwick, and I had a stand selling some of my images. I entered one of these in a competition and it won – and the prize was a voucher from Wex Photographic. When I collected my voucher I got talking to someone at Wex and I was invited to come along to do a talk on night photography. It was fantastic day – I actually did two talks, one in the morning and one in the evening, and both sold out. The talk covered capturing these kinds of images with simple cameras; I have used more basic cameras, such as a Nikon D5200, on some shots, just to see whether they’d be capable of capturing good results. And they work – not quite producing the quality that I’d like, but it’s great that people can obviously have a go with these if they want to.
F: Do you have any talks or projects coming up?
NB: I’ve done talks for years on deep sky imaging, which is more complex than the stuff here, but what I’m doing more of are talks on using DSLRs for these kinds of images. I’ve been asked to do a couple of courses, showing people how it’s all done, and I’ve even been approached to do a couple of more specialist wedding shoots. So, couples who are into astronomy, who want the Milky Way behind them. It’s a big ask to get this to work on your wedding day; really, I think it would have to be a composite. I’m not sure if they’d want to waste time standing out in the cold with me on their wedding night either!