Capturing the cosmos with geologist and astrophotographer Mahar Lagmay 2
Andromeda Galaxy (left) and Lagoon Nebula. Photos courtesy of Mahar Lagmay

Capturing the cosmos with geologist and astrophotographer Mahar Lagmay

Are you a stargazer at heart? You might find inspiration in the journey of Mahar Lagmay.
Myra Pasa, Kriselle Portillo, and John Emil Flores | Jun 10 2024

Are you a stargazer at heart, captivated by the night sky and unable to resist snapping photos of its wonders? You might find inspiration in the journey of Mahar Lagmay, who is known as a Filipino geologist and also a remarkable astrophotographer.

Lagmay is a professor at the National Institute of Geological Sciences at the University of the Philippines (UP). Here, he shares his discoveries and teaches the fundamentals of taking photos of heavenly bodies in the newly opened Astrophotography class at UP Diliman -- a joint project of the UP Film Institute and UP National Institute of Geological Sciences of the College of Science.

Piqued by the interests of Film and Fine Arts students in capturing the deepest of the skies, Astrophotography at UP combines art and science, requiring scientific knowledge and patience to capture good photographs of deep space. Unlike other forms of photography, this is more than just a point-and-shoot process.

"You need to know about focal length, how it is related to magnification, ano 'yung aperture, [and] ano 'yung mga filters that you need to use. You need to learn about the electromagnetic spectrum, what you are taking photos of," he said.

In Lagmay's words, astrophotography aims to capture images of the night sky. There are instances when you can capture images of celestial objects -- like the Sun -- during the day. However, nighttime is when most objects -- including nebulae, stars, and galaxies -- are visible and accessible for photography.

"It may be our way of experiencing the universe," he said.

Known for his outstanding knowledge and experience in the field of geology, Lagmay believes that his profession has a great influence on how he became interested in astrophotography in the sense that whenever he goes outdoors for a fieldwork, he always sees the night sky and appreciates its wonders. His learnings and discoveries fueled his passion to transform his perspective with quality images.

As a geologist, he shared that by capturing images of heavenly bodies, everyone can scientifically connect to the past.

"Kasi itong mga objects na ito actually release their photons, 'yung light. Sometimes hundreds of thousands of years ago... So 'pag pumasok sa telescope 'yun, pumasok dun sa camera, you're really taking a picture of the past," he added. 

Lagmay had to start somewhere to become an astrophotographer. Just like any other kid, he once had a big dream -- to become an astronaut -- but eventually found it impossible to achieve. 

But his passion for astrophotography sparked when his then German lecturer gave them a star chart during his master's degree in the early 1990s, and he would sit or recline on the sandy shore and use the chart to identify stars like Pollux, Castor, Auriga, and other constellations. 

Some of his favorite astrophotographs that he took are the Andromeda Galaxy, Lagoon Nebula, Helix Nebula or the "Eye of God," and Pillars of Creation -- all captured from his backyard in UP Diliman campus. 

Helix Nebula (left) and Pillars of Creation. Photos courtesy of Mahar Lagmay
Helix Nebula (left) and Pillars of Creation. Photos courtesy of Mahar Lagmay

Astrophotography itself is as complex as it seems. Taking photos of heavenly bodies usually exposes the equipment for hours which can heat it. This requires sets of expensive and high-maintenance equipment to produce quality images of specific objects from the universe. 

"As other amateur astrophotographers would recommend, they've been doing this for several years already, start simple muna. Maybe [try] binoculars," Lagmay advised.

But he also insisted that one's curiosity and passion weigh as much as the equipment in astrophotography. 

"Slowly but surely, parang engage yourself. Kasi wala namang bagay na nangyayari na hindi ka nagde-devote ng time. So you have to devote time, inspire yourself, engage, and do more," he said.

Lagmay highlighted the advantages of the Philippine landscape. He said the low light pollution in most areas of the country makes it good for capturing deep sky objects and connecting with the cosmos.

He added that the course of astrophotography does not end with a perfect shot of the universe. For him, it is more about taking a shot beyond what the universe gives. By maximizing the aesthetics of the universe, patience and connection are nurtured, providing a wider perspective on life beyond our spaces. 

"As you practice some more, more and more, you spend time on it. Before you know it, you are already producing very nice astrophotography images," Lagmay said.