Astonishing astronomy pictures revealed in London awards shortlist

A year when photographers have been restricted in their movements shows no sign of compromising the quality of the 2021 Astronomy Photographer of the Year. Here is the shortlist.

The Milky Way rises above a lavender field near Valensole, France. This image is composed of a number of merged shots: due to the constantly moving lavender, the sky and foreground were captured in separate exposures, with a star tracker used to photograph the arc of the galaxy above.  

Photograph by Stefan Liebermann, Astronomy Photographer of the Year
By Simon Ingram
Published 30 Jun 2021, 16:08 BST, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 14:27 BST

The path of the rising sun over a misty Abu Dhabi over a series of multiple exposures; the swirl of traffic trails around a figure gazing up at the Milky Way beneath snow-dripping mountains; depthless stars above ancient chateaus, lavender fields, amusement parks; the aquiline gas clouds of a nebula – in the uncanny form of a dolphin's head.  

Few award shortlists mingle the fantastical environments of space and the domesticity of our planet quite so dynamically as the Astronomy Photographer of the Year Award. And while 2020 offered challenges when it came to logistics, judging by the shortlist – announced by Royal Museums Greenwich – it has been no barrier to photographers tackling this most technically tricky of subjects.   

Forming the short list for the 2021 prize, the images were captured during 2020 by photographers all over the world. (See our favourite science images of 2020.)

Drawing the creative line

Bursting with creativity, colour and unusual perspectives – from images captured on a domestic rooftop to down the lens of a deep-sky telescope – this scientific-flavoured award inevitably features artistry as a factor, too. 

Astrophotography, particularly deep space object photography, by necessity often involves various post-processing techniques – from 'stacking' of images, time-lapses and multiple exposures. Colouration is used both for visual effect and interpretation, with an array of gas-sensitive filters used to separate elements of an image then are often then given appropriate colours for contrast. 

Gallery: view the shortlisted images 

As such drawing the line can be difficult: the competition rules state “unnatural, digitally enhanced, composites are eligible for entry to the competition” but also adds the judges may ask about processing methods for shortlisted images. (38 images reveal the beauty of bugs.)

“For photographs capturing nightscapes, compositions of the night sky and the foreground landscape are allowed, but only if the night sky and the landscape are captured at the same location – or potentially in the same part of the world, at the panel's discretion,” astronomer and judge Dr Emily Drabek-Maunder told National Geographic in an email. “Moving elements of the night sky around are never permitted. Deep space images and images of Solar System objects are almost always composites and normally artificially coloured.”  

The award is now its 13th year, and is hosted by Royal Museums Greenwich, which includes the Royal Observatory telescopes. A judging panel will now assess the images and the overall winner will be revealed in September.



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