Light pollution often hinders would-be stargazers. Nowadays it has become so bad around the world that there are a plethora of dark sky apps and websites to help even the novice astronomer at least find a starting point in their quest for another world.
Searching for a Dark Sky
I have been living in the Middle East for the past 17 years, and, over here, light pollution rules. Qatar is a small country of around three million people. Of course, most of those are concentrated in the cities. You would think that the Middle East would be perfect for dark sky viewing, with clear nights and little rain. Unfortunately, as with most of the world, you still have to search for those dark spots.
Here is a news report with regards to Qatar light pollution. It may be a few years old but the light pollution has only got worse unfortunately.
This link shows just how bad light pollution is in Qatar, and the rest of the world.
Photographing the Milky Way
In my case, a small village, Al Aamriya is located about 75 minutes away from Doha and provides some breathtaking night sky opportunities. When I say breathtaking, I am simply saying there is very little light pollution. April to September is traditionally the best time to view the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere and, during that time, the Milky Way can be seen anytime after sunset until its subsequent rise.
It’s ironic that something potentially so easy to view for such a long part of the night is so well hidden.
In terms of preparation and planning for taking Milky Way shots I suggest leaving early to be able to spend as much time as possible. The good thing about the weather of the Middle East, despite the extreme heat, is that a clear night is pretty much guaranteed.
Capturing a Wide View
A strong sturdy tripod is essential: consider that the weight of the camera and lens is over a kilogram. In terms of camera settings, the wide aperture at f/2.8 is perfect because your intention is to capture as wide and panoramic a picture as possible. Clearly then, I was not bothered at all about zooming into the sky. The intention is to capture a wide view.
In contrast to a telescope, I do not aim to go deep into the sky, just to capture as much of the sky as possible. To that end, taking long exposure shots is also key, to allow as much light as possible into the lens. Therefore, I selected a 20 second exposure (shutter speed) though 30 could also be considered.
A lot of this effort is trial and error. Focus should be set to infinity and noise reduction can be switched off. Finally, the ISO setting should be fairly high for low light conditions. I generally use 1600 as my ISO setting but, again, it’s trial and error.
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Camera! No Lights! Viper!
I use a Nikon D3200 DSLR camera, but with a wide lens Tokina AT-X 116 AF 11-16mm f/2.8 PRO DX II. The camera itself is a pretty basic device, but the magic is in the lens and, without this type of lens, the displayed clarity would not be possible. You can expect to pay more for a good lens than the camera itself. Using a timer for the shots is not really needed because you will be taking a 20 second shot anyway.
During the 20 seconds of the shot it is important not to shine any lights or mobile phone screens as any small amount of light is accentuated with the exposure. On the other hand, it allows you to play around and take ‘special effect’ shots with a torch or car headlights if you like.
On my last visit to Al Aamriya, I actually encountered a snake. I believe it was a horned viper, considered fairly common in the Middle East in remote areas. That was an additional bonus for the camera, and especially for my kids.
Full Moon versus New Moon
I have tried to encourage my kids to enjoy astronomy too. For my eldest daughter I bought a beginners telescope with which she does occasionally look at the moon, taking pictures on a full moon. It does get tricky though, trying to coax children who have other interests into this hobby.
Intentionally, I would always visit on a new moon phase to ensure as clear and dark a night as possible. My main intentions and photographed areas included The Milky Way, Mars and Orion (my favourite constellation).
Hobby with a Bright Future
Before you begin to think that Qatar is blessed with dark skies consider that, even back in 2016, Qatar was reported to be one of the most light-polluted countries in the world. Now, with increased infrastructure developments in the country, for example by winning the World Cup 2022, this has only become worse.
Despite this, paradoxically, if you are willing to look, you will find the darkness. So for those of you, especially in the Kent area, you can certainly find dark skies. They are there for all to see and there are also astronomy clubs to assist.
Qatar also boasts a few astronomical bodies focused on encouraging the hobby. We have The Qatar Astronomy Club, The Astronomy Chapter which is part of Qatar University, as well as The Qatar National Library Astronomy Club. Each of these hold regular meetings and events.
Remember, the darkness is there to see the stars. Don’t let the light blind you!