If you've ever gazed up at the night sky, then you'll probably know that extraordinary feeling of enchantment that comes with realising you have a place in the Universe. For astrophotographer, Ruslan Merzlyakov, it's a world of wonder that brings him a sense of both inspiration and calm.
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This introspective and creative soul has had his work recognised and published by major agencies all over the world, including NASA and National Geographic. His penchant for looking into the unknown with technology that is able to capture what the human eye cannot see has earned him the coveted title of 'Astronomy Photographer of the Year', two years in a row.
This week, we had the honour of chatting with Ruslan to gain an insight into his work. Not only did he share his personal stories with us, but he also divulged some valuable advice for amateur night sky photographers who are seeking to photograph the Milky Way for the very first time.
The Arrival of Spring (Denmark). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzylakov'.
Hello Ruslan! Thank you for speaking with us. For our readers who may be unfamiliar with your work, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? Before you got into photography, what was your background?
Hi and thanks for reaching out to me! I was born in Riga, Latvia but in 2011, when I was 15, I moved to Denmark together with my mother. As I remember myself, when I was a kid, I always liked to draw and make some creative stuff. In my teenage years, after I got my mother’s old digital camera, I started to bring it with me to take pictures whenever I went on a trip – whether it was a school excursion, a weekend getaway with my family or just a walk with my friends. At that time, it was just about capturing a funny or interesting moment in nature – extremely far from thinking of a composition or editing the photo in any way.
It was first at the age of 16, after I moved to Denmark, when I started to get more seriously into photography. At that time, I felt really lonely in a small town in a new country, where nobody spoke my language. As a teenager, I just wanted to go back to my friends and have fun or simply do something interesting with the people I know. So my very first own savings from working as a newspaper-boy every single day after school helped me to buy my first DSLR (which was a Canon EOS 1100D) as a Christmas present.
Natural Opera House (Denmark). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzlyakov'.
What was the path you took that ultimately led you into astrophotography and what do you love most about photographing the night sky?
Funnily enough but I had heard from people since my childhood that I had a good eye and could see things other people couldn’t. I was able to spot and point out some interesting details in buildings, art and nature.
Generally said, after moving to a new country, I had to find a solution to cure my loneliness and boredom, so it happened to be photography. When it comes specifically to astrophotography – well, I was always interested in space but in 2012, after starting to watch a lot of documentaries about stars, galaxies and the Universe, reading many articles within the astronomical topic and, at the same time, seeing a lot of amazing photos of the Milky Way on the Internet, I just got that thought in my head – is it even possible to photograph the night sky on my own?
It all started in my garden with a $10 gorilla-tripod from a local “grocery” store and my first ever astro photos were some white dots on a black background.
Now, almost eight years since I tried astrophotography for the first time, I still get happy just by looking on my camera screen after taking a photograph, every single time I go on my star-hunts. Under the night sky, I find calm and inspiration. Every night is unique in its own way. You will never get the same photograph again, as the Earth is travelling through the Milky Way.
Starlight road through the Teide National Park (Canary Islands, Tenerife). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzlyakov'.
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Tell us a bit about the power of astrophotography. What influence does it have upon how people view nature and the world? Can seeing the stars make a positive change to our collective environmental consciousness?
I’d like to share my personal story regarding this topic. As years passed, I became more and more passionate about going out on every single clear night to capture beautiful nightscapes, until it eventually turned into my lifestyle. Besides showing how regular landscapes look under the starlight, with my works I try to inspire people to step outside more often and to enjoy the beauty of our night skies. As a nightscape photography-pioneer in Denmark, I really noticed how for the past few years, more and more people have started to get interested in astrophotography, the night sky and night phenomena.
At the same time, when I did my bachelor degree in Heritage Management and Communications, I was so happy to be able to combine my passion for the night sky during my studies. As Denmark is home to the first Dark Sky Park in entire Scandinavia, I was invited to do several development projects on the island of Møn to generate new ideas, communicate and spread the knowledge about the darkness and the night sky. The idea of astro-tourism to make astronomy an outdoor experience among citizens and tourists is something that I am still living with and trying to get on a more popular scale. At the same time, it is extremely important to give more attention to the rising level of light pollution (which is not part of the global environmental discussion), because we all need darkness.
The Pink Curtain (Svalbard). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzlyakov'.
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Although your photographs have been taken on Earth, some of them have a magical and almost ethereal quality. Why do you think night sky photography is so enchanting? How do you capture it in such a way that it reflects your imagination or how you feel, as opposed to the sheer darkness that we look up at when we actually gaze outside?
Like in any other photography genre, in astrophotography you can capture a magical moment and show the world how you see it through the camera lens (or a telescope). But especially during the night, your photos become something even more special, as you are able to capture the light that the human eye is not able to see. Long exposure gives you ability to see the Universe and space-colours, which doubles up on the WOW-effect during your stargazing. By “freezing” the time, you will see the glory of our home galaxy, shooting stars, nebulae and other galaxies.
As I was told once: “We all have eyes - you just need to see things”. Whenever I go star-chasing, I always get inspired at the actual location. Of course, planning and preparing for the shot is something that is extremely important (including weather, luck and your skills) but in my case, I get vision in my head of how I see the final result, when I am out in the darkness. I try not to reflect my feelings in my works because I want to inspire people to have more greater thoughts and to show the beauty of our world, instead of sharing my emotions.
Watching 20,000 lightning strikes in the middle of nowhere (Denmark). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzlyakov'.
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Who or what inspires you to create your images in the way that you do? Can you describe how your approach to photography is different to that of others?
Seeing many beautiful photos on the Internet, noticing interesting locations while driving or simply going outside – all these things, together, create a wide spectrum of ideas for my next works. Sometimes, simply browsing Google Maps and checking out the Street View can help me to get an idea for a new photograph. I can tell that as a nightscape- and astrophotographer, I have a really bad habit of not going location-scouting during the daytime. Sometimes, it can be challenging to find an aesthetic composition but at the same time, it also helps me to adapt to the night environment and to think in a creative way.
Can you tell us a bit about the planning that goes into one of your shots? Do you have a list of locations already in mind where you want to shoot, or do you simply go out and try your luck? Do you tend to travel very far from home to capture images?
I love to travel to capture new nightscapes from beautiful locations. My personal favourite combination is to photograph mountains under the Milky Way. But since darkness gives you this unique light, you can re-explore already known locations to capture them in a new way. Having this thought in your mind, you can travel around your local area, your region or your country to capture beautiful nightscapes of places which people have always seen in the daylight. Mostly, I do still explore my local area in northern Denmark and try to go abroad few times a year.
Perseid meteor shower 2019 (Denmark). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzlyakov'.
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What kind of software or apps do you use to help you plan your astrophotography?
For planning, I mostly use Google Maps to find new locations with some interesting foregrounds, while at the same time checking the area with the Light Pollution Map. Otherwise, you might risk getting home with no visible stars in your photos and in a bad mood. I also use the Moon and Night Calculator to know how much time I have to get some nice photos, as well as Stellarium to see the position of the Milky Way compared to the needed shooting direction.
What sorts of camera gear or equipment do you generally take out with you on a night shoot? Is there anything that you’d recommend for other photographers, which has been particularly reliable or useful for you to have in your kit over the years?
I am the type of person who always brings all his gear on trips. This includes both of my 7-year old Canon EOS 6D cameras (astro-modified and stock), Samyang 24mm f/1.4, Canon 50mm f/1.8, Sigma 14mm f/1.4, Samyang 135mm f/2, along with two skytrackers, two shutter remotes and two tripods. Last time, when I brought almost all of my equipment on my third hike to Trolltunga in Norway (together with food, warm clothes, tent and a sleeping bag), I ended up hiking 28km with a 20+ kg backpack and having pain in my knees for the rest of the week but it was totally worth it.
My personal recommendation is to get a skytracker, because with its help, you will be able to capture even more details of the night sky, ignoring the 500-rule. You can track the sky to achieve crazy colours of the Milky Way, photograph galaxies and capture the colourful nebulae. It also helps to reduce the ISO to avoid noise in your photographs (if you have a lens with a small aperture), since you can shoot with really long exposures!
Galactic Lighthouse (Denmark). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzlyakov'.
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You have a YouTube channel where you share some insights into the editing process behind your astrophotography. Tell us a bit about your basic workflow in-field and how people can quickly improve their shots before they even import the image into post-processing software.
Since I am a big fan of making panorama images, while tracking the night sky, I often shoot with a 24mm lens to achieve a better and bigger frame of the scene. Here, it is really important to check if the stars are perfectly in focus every time you move your camera and point it in a new direction. If making a panorama, try to get 50-60% overlap with the previous frame, so you don’t get scars in your image after stacking the files. You can start with the foreground and then move on to making a panorama of the sky. Don’t worry, the Earth is not turning that quickly, you will have plenty of time to make a big panorama image.
I would also like to mention that I never light paint my foreground, because I want to preserve these night-colours with the surrounding ambient light.
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Do you have plans to expand upon your educational videos on YouTube in the future? Where do you see your channel going?
I am not sure about the education videos specifically, but I’d like to make some more timelapse films because it’s always nice to see the “movement” of the night sky. It nearly feels like the sky is alive.
Exploring the Universe (Denmark). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzlyakov'.
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What’s the best photography advice that you’ve ever been given? Do you have any advice that you’d like to pass on to photographers just beginning to take an interest in astrophotography?
Whether it comes to astrophotography or any other photography genre, I like to follow the slogan, “explore to create”. As the term “exploration” doesn’t necessarily mean to travel to the other side of our planet, explore your possibilities and use your opportunities. Explore yourself and explore the world through your camera lens. Take your time and enjoy your night. Astrophotography is not about how expensive your gear is but your experience and knowledge. Even though astrophotography might be difficult to understand and to conquer as a beginner, simply looking up at the sky while you are waiting for your camera to finish taking one photograph can make you happier. You will experience the true scale of our world, even though it might feel like you are standing closer to the stars. If you go on your astro-adventures with a friend, family or somebody you love, you will be able to share this incredible moment and achieve an unforgettable experience.
In recent years, you’ve had your work featured by major agencies and outlets such as NASA, National Geographic, BBC and Forbes. What are your suggestions for aspiring photographers about how they can get their work to be noticed? Aside from publishing work on social media, how else can your audience get their work seen?
Hopefully, with the help of the Internet, we now have opportunities to reach out almost to anyone. Become a member of different groups or communities with the same interest, submit your photos to related photography pages or, if you want to go further, write a short press-release and send it with your beautiful works attached to a media channel. You never know if this will work but you won’t know if you don’t try!
Noctilucent Lighthouse (Denmark). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzlyakov'.
Technology is constantly improving, making night sky photography more accessible to the general public. What do you see as the new horizons for astrophotography in the future?
As more and more people get into astrophotography, it can get harder to compete with only your existing skills and works. Technology is developing rapidly, making astrophotography much easier and more accessible. Nowadays, you have to be innovative, creative and hard-working to improve your photographs, otherwise you can end up in stagnation – not just as an artist but also lose part of your identity of who you are.
From the other side, with the help of technology, you can now photograph the Milky Way with your smartphone. This might save you a lot of space and make your life easier, especially if you are traveling or going on a hardcore adventure.
Is there a dream project that you have in mind for your photography? What would you most like to capture, which you haven’t done yet?
I have captured many colourful meteors, I have seen the Northern Lights almost a hundred times, chased noctilucent clouds, experienced bright zodiacal light but I have never been to the Southern Hemisphere. Just looking at the photos on the Internet and social media of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxies and other regions of the night sky that I have never witnessed before in my 24-year old life... I still dream about going on a star-hunt somewhere in New Zealand, Chile and even Antarctica. The rich landscape and nature diversity that we have on Earth will never leave me without inspiration and ideas for my next works.
Once in a Lifetime Experience (Denmark). Photo by: 'Ruslan Merzylakov'.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today. Are there any exciting projects that we can expect from you in the coming year?
My biggest plan for the second half of this year was to travel and to capture new nightscapes but instead (based on the current situation in the world), I was finally able to explore new places in my local area.
This year’s Perseid meteor shower looks very promising compared to the last year, as it will be nearly the New Moon! As the weather decides everything when it comes to astrophotography, my plans will be based on the forecast and can easily be optimised for location scouting. Hopefully, the space weather always brings something interesting to see and to photograph, so I will have many more incredible photos to come!
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