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Storyteller | Babak Tafreshi

Dark Secrets

Most landscape photographers hang up their cameras when darkness falls, but this is when Babak Tafreshi gets to work, focusing on the night sky to explore the relationship between Earth and the space around us.

It takes a very special eye to appreciate the things that so many of us take for granted, and the night sky is a case in point. How often do we stop and look upwards at the stars, when was the last time we really took time to truly study the face of the moon? For Babak Tafreshi photography only starts in earnest once the light has drained from the sky and darkness has fallen, and he travels the world searching for what he calls his ‘nightscapes,’ images that capture Earth and the ever changing celestial light show above our heads in a single frame, neatly mixing art and science to produce a glorious hybrid.

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babak2In fact it was the moon that really got Babak hooked on astronomy, and he can remember the moment clearly even now. “It was 1991 and I was aged 13,” he recalls. “I was in my family’s apartment in the middle of Teheran and it was the first time that I’d ever looked at the moon through a telescope. I simply couldn’t believe my eyes: that night changed my whole life dramatically. From then on the night sky became my second home or, as my wife often reminds me, my first home! When I’m under the starry sky I feel peace, enjoyment and serenity.”

Excited by the things he was seeing in the sky it was a short step for Babak to want to record his experiences, and so photography started to become a passion alongside the stargazing. Initially he was recording his pictures by attaching a simple SLR camera to his telescope, but eventually his interest evolved, and he began to step away from the simple reportage style images and move towards a vision where the earth and the night sky became one intertwined whole. 
“For me it became a kind of universal message,” he says. “The night sky in my images unites various landmarks, it serves as a single roof if you look above a temple, a church or a mosque. It’s one people and one sky. Being an astronomer, a communicator and a journalist as well I gradually realised there must be other sky photographers around the world who had the same goal, so I helped to form the Astronomers without Borders organisation. Under this umbrella we then founded an initiative programme called The World at Night (TWAN) in 2007, whose aim was to join the forces of some of the world’s best known nightscape photographers.”

In 2009 Babak achieved what he describes as his “crowning achievement” when he shared the annual Lennart Nilsson Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in scientific photography, with Carolyn Porco, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft imaging director. “It particularly meant a lot to me because Lennart Nilsson was a pioneer in microscopic photography, who made most of his best-known images with a Hasselblad,” says Babak. “It inspired me to look at using a Hasselblad in my own work.”

Shooting in Iceland

The nature of Babak’s work means that he is, as a matter of course, working in low light conditions pretty much all the time, regularly having to set long time exposures to squeeze some detail out of the darkness. Using an H4D for a series he shot in Germany and the US National Parks he achieved some great results, but he admits it was a challenge for the camera to cope with the conditions when darkness fell.

Still determined to stick with Hasselblad Babak was excited when the CMOS-sensored H5D-50c was announced, and the promise it held of higher ISO capability was exactly what he was looking for. He arranged the loan of a camera and a 28mm f/4 lens and fixed up a trip to Iceland to photograph the Aurelia Borealis, full of hope that he might finally have found his ideal camera. “It turned out to be a very productive trip,” he says, “and I was there when the region experienced the most active aurora storm for years in mid March. Finding clear sky in Iceland in winter is not easy, but I was fortunate with ideal conditions when I visited the iconic mountain of Kirkjufell at the west coast. The aurora storm was roaring across the sky the entire night with bright colourful rays and crowns. It was an amazing experience.”

It was the perfect test for the H5D-50c, and it was one that it passed with aplomb. Shooting with the aperture on his lens wide open Babak generally works with exposures of around 10-30 seconds, while longer exposure star trail shots can be an hour or so in length. If the aim is to ‘freeze’ the motion of the stars, however, then an exposure time of less than 20 seconds is called for. The Hasselblad was used at ISO speeds up to 6400, and the quality of the results blew the photographer away.

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“The H5D-50c is a major improvement for low-light photography,” confirms Babak. “I’m very surprised by the low-noise performance at ISO 6400 and you still get a fairly high dynamic range at this speed. This is evident in some of my new aurora images where the aurora activity was so intense that with most DSLR cameras the colours would have become saturated, while some areas would have been completely over-exposed by multi-second exposures necessary to reveal stars and the dark foreground. But the H5D handled the extreme dynamic range perfectly and I could easily reveal details in overexposed highlights in my post processing.”

More information:

TWAN: www.twanight.org
Astronomers Without Borders: www.astrowb.org

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