Award-winning UAE astrophotographer Samy Olabi has spent the last 10 years building up a phenomenal portfolio of the country’s celestial wonders — all the while juggling a day job in construction management. Now, having taken the leap to pursue his passion full-time, the 44-year-old is on a mission: to bring the beauty of the UAE’s night skies to audiences through virtual reality.
Samy’s body of work is regarded as one of the best in the region, featuring on CNN, National Geographic, Microsoft, Apple billboards and more. Initially, however, photography was just an escape. “The construction industry is very stressful, so I needed to do this at least once a week to recharge before I went back to work.”
Astrophotography holds multiple draws for the Egyptian expat — not least of which was his fascination for celestial bodies as a child. A former boy scout, the realisation that astronomy would require travelling long distances and camping only added to the thrill. But the third aspect is spiritual. “When you go out to these places, switch off your car lights, disconnect from all technology, and gaze into the night skies, it feels like a kind of meditation as well. You can really enjoy the silence.”
Samy is familiar with life in the chaos of the city and that of the desert’s serenity. The two cannot compare, he says. “I can quickly tell you that people who don’t experience life in nature, away from the city, are missing out on a lot. It’s easy to get lost in the everyday routine. But when you go out into the desert, you feel like you’re returning to your origins — like you’re going back home… closer to your nature. At the same time, don’t isolate yourself from real life in the city,” he cautions, reasonably. “Have a balanced life.”
His photographs of deep sky wonders are nothing short of otherworldly — and it’s hard to believe that the starry landscapes he portrays are from the UAE. For one, the skies in his snaps are dotted with a million stars — an image most residents have likely only ever seen in books or movies. “This is simply because cities — especially busy ones like Dubai and Abu Dhabi — are equipped with lots of lights. These block out natural objects in the sky, which is why we hardly see a star or two, apart from the moon and (on occasion) the major planets in the city,” says Samy. One of the key aspects in astrophotography is to “run away” from such light pollution, he explains. “It was normal, once upon a time, for people to be able to identify the Milky Way with the naked eye. Now, you would need to travel at least 50-60 kms to see such beauty.”
Although many of his peers follow the trend of compositing different elements to create photographs, Samy says he tries to be as genuine as possible in his post-production. “I always try to preserve the reality of the photo — simply because I don’t want to risk not meeting the criteria of international entities like National Geographic and BBC Earth, which will disregard any submissions that have been altered. All of the colours you see in the images are real. You just learn to use techniques — followed by NASA and other global observatories — to extract and enhance those features.”
His goal now is to bring the beauty of the UAE’s night skies to its residents through a virtual reality project called Heavens and Earth. A virtual exhibition called Celestial has already been launched by Manarat Al Saadiyat in collaboration with Nikon Middle East. Samy calls it just the beginning. “There are so many beautiful parts of the UAE that people don’t know exist. Since many are unable to visit those places and see their beauty for themselves, I am hoping to put this virtual reality project out in such a way that they can enjoy it from their homes — perhaps by Expo 2021.”