MAGICAL: Whakatane astrophotographer Paul Shortts image of the Gabriela Mistral nebula, which sits 7560 light years away from Earth. Photo Paul Shortt

Amateur astrophotographer Paul Shortt has been wowing people with his amazing photographs of celestial features in our night skies, writes Kathy Forsyth.

PAUL says he has been taking photos of “objects” in the sky for about three years and uses a Skywatcher Esprit 120 telescope and a ZWO 1600mm pro mono camera to capture the images. He is completely self-taught.

“It has been a big learning curve, very expensive and everything breaks when you don’t want it to,” he laughs. “But that is just the nature of the beast and as you get more experience you learn more.”

His hobby takes patience and dedication.

“What you basically do is, because the camera is black and white, or mono, I put different filters in front of it and take lots and lots and hours’ worth of exposures … and then when you process them the colours come out from the different wavelengths of light.

“You are basically following a star near the object for like 10 hours. You have the telescope with two cameras on it. One is for guiding. So, you have a guide star, and that is very difficult to do right and that makes the biggest difference to the images, and then you do three-minute exposures, roughly, and you do 40 of those and then you stack them.”

Paul says he previously had his telescope and cameras set up in the back garden but has recently been able to do it from inside his house.

“I have spent many a night getting mosquito bitten and cold and I thought, ‘enough is enough’, but I am sure if something starts going wrong with this telescope I will be back outside in a heartbeat.”

Although Paul has a slight interest in astronomy, he gets most of his enjoyment from the technical challenge the photographs pose.

“It’s the challenge of getting it working right and keeping it working right; drives the wife mad. Well, you know, you are up at 3 o’clock in the morning and you are working shifts, it is a challenge.

Paul can’t put a number on the photos he has taken. “Lots of bad photos. Good ones, a dozen.

“For every good one there is a failure. I had problems with the camera at first. I didn’t know it was broken but it was and that went on for a year and a half.”

Fortunately, Paul says, the company that manufactures the cameras has been extremely efficient in repairing his equipment.

Originally from Britain, Paul has been living in Coastlands for 15 years, which is where he takes the photos.

“You can see the light pollution creeping in now, which is a shame. We should be trying to keep it dark as it is an asset. The amount of people who come here and say ‘oh, the skies are so wonderful’.”

Paul says he is out there taking photos whenever there is a clear sky. “It doesn’t matter what day it is, if there is a clear sky, I will give it a bash. Couple of hours here and a couple of hours there and hopefully they all stack.”

Sometimes he wonders why he does it.

“You know, you are sitting there for five hours and you can’t see the [end result] and sometimes you get high cloud and it ruins everything. It is like fishing, but in the sky.”

Paul says he is working on a spectacular object – the Statue of Liberty Nebula. “It is an amazing object, but it is nowhere near finished yet.”

He is hoping to enter it in the Astrophotographer of the Year award run by the Auckland Astronomical Society. It has to be done by November and he is feeling the pressure.

“I never come anywhere. I am still classed as a beginner, so there are people who are way better. I will get there in the end, maybe by the time I retire.”

He says his passion is to take photographs of obscure objects in the southern sky. “So, people in the northern hemisphere go ‘what?’ The more obscure the better.”

Paul has been posting some of his photos on the Ohope Beach Facebook page. He also shares them on astronomy photography forums where they get “pulled apart” by other photographers.

“But that is how you learn.”

kathy.forsyth@thebeacon.co.nz