As an exhibition of astrophotography goes on in the city, Ajay Talwar, a participant and one of the few belonging to the tribe, explains why he loves to demystify the celestial world.

Demystifying the skies and bringing the celestial bodies closer to people are three photographers — Laurent Laveder, Thierry Legault from France and Ajay Talwar — at Jantar Mantar. The site, an 18th century astronomical observatory, couldn’t have been more appropriate, even though in recent years it has come to be first registered as a site of protest in our minds. But the exhibition “Astrophotography” — organised by Institut Francais en Inde, the French Embassy in India and the Alliance Francaise as part of “Fete De La Photo 2014 — A Photo Festival in Public Space” — in which science meets art, sits in perfect harmony with the space. Ajay Talwar, one of the few astrophotographers in India, talks about practicing this niche genre.

On astrophotography in India

Its popularity is growing at a good pace because of digital SLR. There are about 200-300 practitioners of it because digital SLR allows long exposures and full control over apertures. You have to expose your photograph for the right time to create star trails and that’s how you get an image. When I started 27 years ago, we used to shoot on film and we would come to know of our mistakes only later and it would take long to correct it. Amateur Astronomer Association of Nehru Planetarium (Talwar is its vice-president) has also popularised the genre. Members discuss different aspects of astronomy there.

On the technique

While in the daytime everything is done by the camera itself, when you are shooting at night, the photographer has to do a lot of things. The focus, the framing and the exposure, you have to decide everything. To do something like star trails, you have to keep shooting long exposure, say about 30 seconds through the night, but at Nanda Devi where the shoot lasted for three hours, I kept exposing for two minutes. It was a cold night and three cameras with timer remotes attached to them were placed at different locations. It is an interesting experience because the photographer spending the whole night beneath the sky can see it move.

Shooting night landscapes like I do doesn’t require telescope but yes when I do deep sky objects, I do work with telescopes. Otherwise I shoot on 35 mm lens, 50 mm lens or 200 mm lens in special cases like my image of moonrise above the Kalkaji temple. I was one-and-a-half kilometres away from the temple in a house in Sant Nagar. I had to plan the shoot in advance because I had to calculate the day and the time of such an alignment between the moon and the temple.

On bringing the human element into his photographs

The structures, temples and human presence entered my frame after I was invited by TWAN (The World at Night), a platform for photographers who shoot earth and sky in the night. I realised that to get people to relate to this world, it is important to have a relatable presence. Viewers are very receptive to such images. In the “Dolly and Pankaj” image which has become very popular, it is just my friend sitting under the sky at Hatu Peak in Narkanda, Himachal Pradesh, against the moving stars captured through exposures. I would tell my friend to stay still for five minutes, then ten minutes and then fifteen minutes in such biting cold.

Future projects

India’s largest optical telescope is coming up at Devasthal in Nainital and I have been documenting its creation. So I plan on doing a time-lapse video on it.