This is how far I got in four years of astrophotography

Feb 2, 2023

Benjamin Barakat

Benjamin Barakat is an astrophotographer who hosts seminars, workshops & photography expeditions internationally worldwide. He is based out of Switzerland, where he is also a researcher at the highest observatory in Europe, the Sphinx Observatory on top of Jungfraujoch, 3571 meters above sea level. His work has been featured by National Geographic, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Guardian, Vice, and many more.

This is how far I got in four years of astrophotography

Feb 2, 2023

Benjamin Barakat

Benjamin Barakat is an astrophotographer who hosts seminars, workshops & photography expeditions internationally worldwide. He is based out of Switzerland, where he is also a researcher at the highest observatory in Europe, the Sphinx Observatory on top of Jungfraujoch, 3571 meters above sea level. His work has been featured by National Geographic, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Guardian, Vice, and many more.

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Benjamin Barakat astrophotography journey

Little over four years ago, I had a thought that would change my life forever. Little did I know then, but this thought would be the catalyst for me to discover my true purpose in life. As the days, months, and years passed by, the more I began to realize that this little sidling of thought was my destiny all along. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something big was about to happen, and I was right.

In just a little over four years, I transformed from an astrophotography noob to a refined, award-winning craftsman. Join me on my journey as I uncover how one simple idea led me to find my true calling.

The backstory

As with anything worth anything in life, there was a train of events that led me to this tiny thought. For as long as I can remember,  I was always struggling to decide “what I want to do with my life“. Unlike other photographers, I did not have a clear vision of my future. I had ups and downs throughout my life, but mostly downs. It was pretty much meaningless and a complete disaster.

In 2014 I was living in Dubai – a plastic city with little inspiration, motivation, or life purpose. Then I met my wife, and everything changed. I fell in love with her the moment we met. My life was turned upside down, and I was ready to leave everything behind and follow my heart to a new world filled with new possibilities. I didn’t care what I would do; I just wanted to be with her. So, six months later, I quit my job and moved to Switzerland to start a new life together.

My first “Astrophotography” photo

We lived in a tiny village in the countryside of Switzerland, surrounded by green hills and forests. It wasn’t as picturesque as other places in Switzerland, but it was a big upgrade from the plastic city I once lived in. Here I was free to think and dwell on life and figure out my life goals.

Since we were away from the city, we had dark skies. Every evening, we would sit on our porch and watch the stars. We spent many nights observing meteor showers and counting shooting stars. One night, without even thinking, I spoke my mind, as I often do, and told my wife that I wanted to take pictures of the stars.

I had no prior experience with photography. My goal was to get a camera and capture the stars, and that’s exactly what I did.

I had no idea where or how to get started in with cameras or lenses, but then I remembered my father had a camera. During my next visit to Lebanon, I asked him if he still had it. Luckily he did! It was sitting in the closet with no use to anyone, so he gifted it to me. It was a Canon 5D Mark III with two lenses: a Canon EF 24-105mm and a Canon EF 100-400mm. While these lenses weren’t perfect for night photography, they were the first stepping stone that started this journey.

I did some quick searching online and found out a few of the basics, like the 300 rule and camera settings for capturing the stars. I then decided to head outside my doorstep and take my first picture of the stars. Of course, I attached the wrong lens hood and ended up with this image.

This is how far I got in four years of astrophotography - the first image
This is the first “astrophotography” photo I took about four years ago

Still, I was amazed, I could see stars in my image, and after all, that’s all I had wished for.

First step up the Astrophotography ladder

I tried a few more times and got a bit more adventurous, hiking up into the hills and forest during the night. If you are just starting out with Astrophotography, it can be a little intimidating standing out in nature, all alone in the dark of the night. As someone who used to be afraid of the dark, I’ve come a long way. Some of my latest adventures are even more demanding and require me to face many of my fears; More on that later on.

I still had no idea what I was doing, but I was persistent and already obsessed with photography. I did a lot of online homework and quite a bit of reading into the topic. And before you knew it, I discovered the Milky Way! I was left in disbelief and confusion. If the Milkey Way was a real thing, why had I never seen it or even heard about it in my entire life? Now I had a new goal: to see if such a wonder existed, and if it did, I wanted to capture it too.

With no experience in Astronomy (I failed to pay any attention in school, which also explains my lack of knowledge about the Milkey way), I was desperate to find help. I searched social media and found a person doing night expeditions in Lebanon. During my next visit, I met up and went out with him. The night was cut short as the others in the expedition wanted to go home to their beds, and I wasn’t willing to stay by myself in the mountains waiting for the rise of the Milky Way when I still wasn’t sure if it existed.

I asked the guy again, and insisted we do another expedition. This time, just the two of us – Solo. That’s where I met my good friend Maroun Habib who, incidentally, is also an excellent Astrophotographer. They were heading out for a session and were kind enough to allow me to join. Maroun guided me with the perfect settings after pointing out and showing me the Milky Way for the first time ever. I was blown away and left in awe. How could this be? Was this a dream or an illusion? No, it certainly wasn’t.

Here below is my first shot ever with the Milky Way!

This is the first photo with my new friend - The Milky Way
This is the first photo with my new friend – The Milky Way

After seeing the guys using a star tracker and modified cameras, I was intrigued. GAS kicked in, and I was convinced that I needed a similar setup.

Gear and Companionship

I then decided to buy myself a Canon 6D Mark II and a Samyang 14mm wide-angle lens. I also, without doubting the process for a heartbeat, sent the camera in for Astro modification. This is a process where the original white balance filter is removed, allowing the H-alpha wavelength to be visible. This makes the ionized hydrogen content of gas clouds to be visible.

H-alpha wavelength with gas clouds
The H-alpha wavelength are visible after an astro-modification to the camera

I then made a “slight” hint to my wife that I want a star-tracking device for my birthday! But when I got it, and started testing, I was confused and couldn’t figure out how to set it up. It looked like such a simple device. In the end, I left that piece of equipment in the wardrobe for the next year.

Back in Switzerland, I had no photography friends and thought it might be a good idea to search for someone to head out with. That’s when I found Ralph Rohner. Ralph is now one of my best friends and I still to this day call him my mentor! Ralph is one of the best human beings I have ever met. He was kind enough to let me come out with him and disturb his peace by shining my headlamp all over the place like a rookie.

As people know, finding a photography buddy, let alone one for night photography and astrophotography, can be very hard and problematic. But somehow we managed to get along and shoot in harmony.

Of course, I learned from the best. Not only did Ralph passed on all the knowledge from his many years of experience, but also the principles and rules of how to do night photography. I see Ralph as a father figure and have always looked up to him since the day we met. I will always be grateful for the mountains he dragged me up, in -20 to -30 degree temperatures, and for pushing me to challenge myself and accomplish things I didn’t know I was capable of. Without Ralph, I probably would have never been where I am today! Thank you, Ralph!

Ralph Rohner and Benjamin Barakat
Ralph Rohner and me during one of our shots

Starting at 100% and then pushing stronger

By this point, I had already come up with the ambitious idea that I wanted to teach others, but I was far from ready. I had a lot more to learn and needed a lot more practice to master my craft. My journey was just beginning, and I knew that to truly become an expert in night photography, I would have to push myself to the limits and explore new places, take risks and face my fears. I was determined to not only become a skilled photographer but also be able to share my knowledge and inspire others to pursue their passion for capturing the beauty of the night sky.

After more practice, and a “friendly push” from Ralph to stack and track, I finally learned to trust myself a bit more and develop my skills. We set out on a road trip starting in Switzerland and heading down towards the Pyrenees in the south of France, then to the center of France before heading back home. We covered over 4,500km in five nights. Every night we had a new shooting location. It was tiring and very demanding, but it led to winning my first competition ever which I will talk about later.

It was the summer of Covid, and the beginning of when my career really started to take off. I was jobless and determined to make this a career. My objective was to head out as many clear and moonless nights as I could. While others complained during this time of distress, I took it as an opportunity to travel and explore Switzerland. What better way to spend my days in a pandemic than standing alone out in nature during the night taking photos?

It was also the time of the famous Comet Neowise, which I captured with my wife pointing up to the comet and touching it. Another image that went viral and brought me closer to where I am today.

Benjamin Barakat and comet girl
This is my comet girl shot. one of the first viral shots I ever made

I then started doing workshops here in Switzerland. They started slow and I didn’t have many clients. But I didn’t let this distract me from my goal.

After some time I decided to enter my first competition ever. I took the first place for my image and had to stand in a gallery and give a speech about how I accomplished this shot. This was the first time I had ever won anything in my life and was a reassurance that my efforts had been appreciated. It was a truly amazing and historical moment for me in my career!

Benjamin Barakat - winning my first astrophotography contest
winning my first astrophotography contest. It was shot in the Pyrenees with Ralph. In the shot, my love – The Milky Way

Also, another image from my trip with Ralf, Chateau de Chambord, was shortlisted for one of the most prestigious competitions in the world: Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2021! Out of 5,000 applicants, mine was selected in the top 40 and then put on display for one year in the Royal Museum of Greenwich in the United Kingdom! This led to my image being published in  Forbes, CNN, National Geographic, and many more. This was a huge accomplishment for me.

CHATEAU DE CHAMBORD
This is the photo of Chateau de Chambord that got shortlisted by the Astronomy Photographer of the Year award

Shortly after, I was then titled ‘Milky Way Photographer of the Year 2021‘ by Capture the Atlas. My image went viral along with the other winners, by the likes of Forbes, CNN, The Telegraph, and many more.

Milky Way Photographer of the Year 2021 - photo of the Atlas and Milky Way
Milky Way Photographer of the Year 2021 – photo of the Atlas and The Milky Way

I began to get more clients, but business was still slow. I decided it was time to start designing photography tours to other destinations. My first tour was to the White Desert of Egypt, followed by Jordan, and then Iceland. Thankfully, they were all successful, and I even began working on a long-time goal of mine, which was to create films of my adventures. The first film is of our Iceland trip which we will postshortly.

Conclusion

2022 was a great year for me as it opened my eyes to the possibilities of my future in photography. I won several awards, including Milky Way Photographer of the Year, acquired sponsors, and became an ambassador for several companies. I also had the opportunity to travel to Iran and capture images of their night sky, as well as lead a seminar on capturing the cosmos in Abu Dhabi. Despite my fear of flying, I continue to face my fears and travel the world to capture its beauty. This year, I plan to tour Socotra, Chile, Bolivia, Namibia, Jordan, Oman, Egypt, and Iceland. To find out more about my trips and plans, check out my website or social profiles.

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Benjamin Barakat

Benjamin Barakat

Benjamin Barakat is an astrophotographer who hosts seminars, workshops & photography expeditions internationally worldwide. He is based out of Switzerland, where he is also a researcher at the highest observatory in Europe, the Sphinx Observatory on top of Jungfraujoch, 3571 meters above sea level. His work has been featured by National Geographic, CNN, BBC, Forbes, Guardian, Vice, and many more.

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