Inside the Middle East

Lebanon's astrophotographers aim for the stars

Eoghan Macguire, CNN.Updated 3rd October 2017
(CNN) — A burgeoning bar and club scene has earned Beirut a reputation as the Middle East's party capital.
But it's nightlife of a different kind that appeals to the star-chasers of BeirutVersus.
When darkness falls, the amateur astrophotography collective regularly heads out of the Lebanese capital to some of the country's remotest locations
Their aim? To capture the beauty of the stars, constellations and galaxies above them.
"Everything in the sky screams to you 'take a beautiful photo of me and discover me more'," BeirutVesus founder Khalil Azar tells CNN.
"The more you concentrate on a single part of the sky, the more information you can build and the more interesting structures you can find.
"It's always a process of discovery."
The Antares and Cats Paw nebulae are pictured from the town of Akoura, Lebanon.
The Antares and Cats Paw nebulae are pictured from the town of Akoura, Lebanon.
Courtesy BeirutVersus/Khalil Azar

Growing hobby

While astrophotography, the photography of astronomical objects, takes place worldwide, its popularity appears to be growing in Lebanon.
Roger Hajjar, an associate professor in astrophysics at Notre Dame University-Louaize near Beirut, says Lebanese astrophotography has been "booming these past few years."
He puts this down to three things: good quality camera equipment becoming easily available; the rise of collectives such as BeirutVesus; and social media platforms giving their beautiful images a platform.
The Milky Way pictured from near Kfardebian, Lebanon.
The Milky Way pictured from near Kfardebian, Lebanon.
Courtesy BeirutVersus/Khalil Azar
Azar partakes primarily in "wide-field astrophotography" -- this technique captures a broad field of view and can be carried out using commercially available cameras such as DSLRs.
Azar says his aim is to use the most "basic cameras (and lenses) possible to take the most advanced photos" he can.
Others, meanwhile, specialize in mounting cameras on telescopes to further hone in on astronomical details.
The resulting images of colorful meteor showers and far-off galaxies are stunning.

Dark skies

There are plenty of astrophotographers operating across the Gulf nations and North Africa, says Hajjar.
And Azar, who manages software projects by day, admits that more remote parts of Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have "darker skies" than Lebanon.
But Lebanon, they agree, has a unique mix of factors that make it an appealing astrophotography destination.
The country has as many as 300 clear nights each year, Azar says, and possesses areas of high ground -- advantageous for astrophotography -- that are easily accessible from urban locations.
Hajjar speaks of "paved roads all the way up to 2,000 meters (6,500 ft)" just an hour from Beirut. "I don't know of many places where you'd find something like that," he says.
Being up that high also minimizes the issue of light pollution from nearby cities.
The night sky above Akoura, northern Lebanon.
The night sky above Akoura, northern Lebanon.
Courtesy BeirutVersus/Khalil Azar
Access to clear, dark skies alone, however, does not guarantee good photos.
Azar notes that patience is required to become a competent astrophotographer.
It can take hours to capture just one photo over a long exposure. More time is then required to sift through the vast amount of celestial detail contained within a wide-field picture using image processing software. A decent knowledge of astronomy is also beneficial.
Through BeirutVersus, which has about 20 members, Azar runs regular classes and excursions that explain this process.
Later this month, he hopes to collaborate with a sound producer and visual artist on a trip to explore new ways of interpreting astrophotography and its processes.
The stars of the show, however, will always be in the night sky above.
Click or swipe through the gallery at the top of the page to view the astrophotography of BeirutVersus.