Retirement Is Out Of This World

Photo: Terry Cuttle

What do you plan to do in retirement? One retiree has a passion in his retirement that is out of this world.

Joe Cali’s ‘retirement’ is a little different. However, he’s certainly not the ‘retiring’ type! Joe is described as an ‘Australian photographer, world traveller, amateur astronomer, adventurer and solar eclipse chaser’.

I asked Joe about his previous work, and his passion for astronomy.

What did you retire to and from?

I worked for 35 years as an analytical specialist in a type of analysis used in climate change research.  Measuring the biochemistry in the shells of microscopic ocean fauna (coral polyps, plankton & algae) that get preserved in underwater geological fossil formations, we are able to measure sea levels, polar ice cap volumes, ocean volumes and ocean temperatures. Our research group at the ANU, focused on the climate history of the Earth and its oceans during the past few million years. The Earth’s climatic history is interesting in its own right. In addition, this work also formed part of the baseline data for some of the future predictive modelling produced by other researchers and groups around the world and for determining the deviation from natural variation to quantify human-induced global warming.  

Upon retirement, I made a beeline for darker skies and within months bought a property with a 5br house in the country between Young and Cowra and away from town lights and under gorgeous dark skies. I have taught a variety of photography workshops through the Photoaccess Arts Centre for the past 25 years.

millions of stars against a black night sky, retirement out of this world
Photo: Joe Cali. Using an 8 inch telescope and precision tracking mount from his home near Young, Joe captured this image of one of the jewels of the southern sky, the globular cluster NGC 104 located near the Small Magellanic Cloud in the constellation of Tucana. This globular cluster is thought to contain up to 10 million stars. 

I always thought that teaching residential retreat workshops would be a nice way to spend retirement. Eventually, I will build an observatory but for now, I am very happy just having a gorgeous dark sky right in my backyard every clear moonless night.  I have done more nights of personal observing and astrophotography this past year than I have done collectively in the past 20 years. I also have hosted a group of my friends out here on a few weekends for gourmet food / astro weekends. I have also established a nice vegetable garden and plan on planting a couple of apple trees in addition to the peach, apricot and loganberry trees that were already established. Plenty to keep me busy. 

When did your interest in astronomy start?

My interest in astronomy started when I was 15.  A wonderful teacher at my school formed an astronomy club and before I knew it, I was hooked. 43 years later, I’m still hooked.  Life and work got in the way at different times leaving me little time to pursue the astronomy but the interest never waned. In recent years, I have been much more active than I was in mid-career. Now in retirement, I can indulge my own interests.  

Why do you like photography?

Have camera, will travel! Photography has always been there alongside me with the many other interests I have pursued during life. I became interested in photography at the same time as astronomy, at age 15, and my first interests were in astrophotography. 

Astrophotography in the late 1970’s, without all the modern technology we have today, was very very hard work. After finishing university and starting to work, I took up competitive sailing, bushwalking, cross country skiing, ski mountaineering. Photography was always there recording what I was doing. A bad ski accident in 1994, put me in a leg brace for 12 months and another 24 months after that recovering from reconstructive surgery regaining mobility and strength.  I used the down time to advance my photographic (camera and compositional) skills, my B&W darkroom skills, and to learn to speak Spanish. Over the next few years, I took two extended vacations in Latin America, hung a series of exhibitions based on these travels, and began teaching photography workshops with a Canberra based Art Centre called Photoaccess.  

total eclipse exposure, retirement out of this world
Photo: Joe Cali. Taking exposures every few minutes for three hours, Joe captured this time lapse image of a total eclipse looking over the Andes in Argentina on 2nd July 2019. 

How difficult is to to capture nightscape photographs?

With modern cameras, it’s really pretty easy to get something to show up in a frame, but obviously much more difficult to get the top-quality jaw-dropping images you see doing the rounds on social media. It’s a very technical type of photography compared to most daytime happy snapping. Taking nightscape photographs out in the country under dark skies means that you can’t compose the landscape in viewfinder because it’s so dark that you can’t even see it. You have to juggle low light levels, noise, rotation of the Earth, along with personal safety and security considerations.   

To take a basic nightscape image showing landscape and sky, all you need is a solid tripod, a DSLR or mirrorless camera body, a wide-angle lens, and a wireless remote shutter release or cable switch shutter release. Mobile phone cameras are improving all the time but at present, even the most expensive mobiles can barely match the image quality from a moderately old and outdated DSLR camera.  Some of the fancier types of images require more sophisticated equipment, tracking devices to follow the stars, specialised astro-cameras and telescopes. 

What have been some of the highlights?

Here at home, observing comet McNaught in January 2007 was just so spectacular, a very bright, huge naked eye comet that filled 50 degrees of the western sky after sunset. So bright that it was visible during blue hour in twilight. Just magnificent and probably a once in a lifetime event though I live in hope! Ten years before that, the spectacular Comet Hyakutake stretched 30 or more degrees across the midnight sky.  

I have led a very fortunate life. I have been very privileged to be able to travel to many corners of the globe to experience and photograph 14 total solar eclipses on 6 continents and some remote islands. On all of these occasions, I always organised other travels at those remote destinations. Many of them are way off the beaten track but always interesting. The standouts were eclipses observed from 14000ft high in the Andes, Svalbard up near the north pole where I also saw two amazing auroral displays, an eclipse in the Sahara in the south of Libya, and an eclipse on Tatakoto, a remote atoll 1200km east of Tahiti. My friends and I were the first Australians to visit Tatakoto atoll since it was first settled more than 200 years ago.  

silhouettes of people standing in snow against a night sky, retirement out of this world
Photo: Joe Cali. A small band of hardy observers are seen braving the -23C temperatures on the island of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean just 800km from the North Pole observing this total eclipse of the Sun on March 20, 2015. 

In recent years, I have loved introducing the wonders of the night skies to students. Taking them right out of Canberra, and more recently welcoming them to my property between Young and Cowra, many have admitted that the field trip during my workshop was the first time they have ever experienced the magnificence of truly dark skies. It’s nice when you know you have given someone a really special experience. I have been lucky to have made a handful of very close friends through astronomy, some are people that I have maintained close friendships with for decades.  

Tell us about your photography courses

Over the past 25 years I have cycled through teaching many photography workshops. I began teaching B&W film photography and darkroom practice. As the world turned to digital photography in the early 2000’s, I had been using Photoshop since 1992 so I switched to teaching camera skills with digital cameras and digital photography image processing first with Photoshop then Lightroom.   

With the move, we have been adjusting the format of old workshops and kicking around some ideas for some new workshop offerings to include a weekend field trip staying out here in the Hilltops at my property. Naturally, this includes the nightscape and astronomical photography themed workshops but we are also kicking around ideas for a workshop combining nature and regional photography weekends with some gourmet food themes.

As you can imagine, COVID lockdowns have interfered with most of the workshop program this year. We did run a couple of workshops early this year which served as useful test runs. Everything was cancelled in the last half of the year but this is a long-term project so we are currently planning next year’s program. 

In recent years, and with the encouragement and support of Photoaccess Art Centre Director, Kirsten Wehner and Engagement Officer, Wouter Van Der Voode, I have developed two workshops focussing on Nightscape and Astrophotography. I have also developed associated supporting courses on Lightroom and Photoshop that develop the specialist image processing skills required to process nightscape and astronomical images. The introductory unit of these two courses have been designed in such a way that the skills can be used to powerfully process any photographs, not just astrophotographs.  So, we get some non-astrophotographers enrolling in the introductory courses.   

Website and Contact Details

Descriptions of the courses are always available on my website, https://joe-cali.com/nightscape. Enrolments are handled through the Photoaccess Art Centre classes page, https://www.photoaccess.org.au/workshops/classes/ but courses are only posted there when we have them open for enrolments. 

You can also click here to see Joe’s website

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