Teenage Astrophotographer Keeps His Eyes on the Stars
Most teenagers have taken hundreds or even thousands of selfies by the time they graduate from high school. But how many earn a national award for one?
The photo came about when Hutchison was experimenting with pre-dawn stargazing on a family beach trip. He spent some time trying several angles and settings to get it just right. In the award-winning shot, he is seen in the foreground, all alone on the quiet beach, with the Milky Way shining above him at 4 a.m.
Photo by Tyler Hutchison
“It feels very alien at that hour,” he says. “It’s very quiet and the stars are just about all you can see. You might as well be on another planet.”
Hutchison says his fascination with space goes far back into his childhood when he was playing with Legos and asking lots of questions about stars and planets.
“I have always been interested in space,” he says. “I can’t even say when that developed because it’s always been on my mind. I remember that many of my dreams were about space, and in fact, many still are to this day. Usually, in dreams like that, I'll find myself doing something that physics forbids, like flying around at faster than light speed.”
His interest in photography came later, on a fourth-grade field trip. His mother, also an avid photographer, had allowed him to borrow her digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera to capture some memories from the outing. He enjoyed experimenting with different settings to see how they changed the outcome.
Photo by Tyler Hutchison
Over the years, Hutchison has amassed a gallery of photos that showcase the far-off planets and galaxies that have always captivated him. But he hesitates to name a favorite.
“It’s hard to pick a personal favorite because I’m very critical of my own work,” he says. “I am proud of the galaxy photos because they’re a technical achievement even when they aren’t very impressive aesthetically. When you consider how far away that is, to capture it at all is a powerful thing.”
Hutchison says he would not have made these strides without the encouragement and support of his family, beginning at an early age.
“I think I was born with a personality that makes me want to specialize,” he says. “I don’t want to be kind of good at lots of things; I want to really know a lot in one area of study. And my parents were happy to let me do my own thing. My whole family, really. My grandparents were the ones who bought me my first telescope.”
Hoping to offer similar encouragement to others, Hutchison enjoys sharing his love of astronomy with younger kids. Through participation in stargazing events with the Richmond Astronomical Society, where he is a board member, he helps them use telescopes to see and identify heavenly bodies they had only seen in textbooks.
He has also visited third graders at St. Christopher’s Lower School to talk about his interest in the beauty and science of astronomy.
"It's interesting to think about what I was like at that age.” he says. “Third grade was a tough year for me, in terms of health, and I was dealing with a lot of anxiety. But it’s fun to go back now, and it makes me think of conversations I might have with my 10-year-old self.”
His outreach to younger students recently added another accolade to Hutchison’s growing resume: The Astronomical League’s Horkheimer/Smith Youth Service Award. He’ll spend part of his summer visiting Kennedy Space Center to accept the award and cruising to the Bahamas to celebrate with his fellow award winners.
In the fall, Hutchison begins his first year at William & Mary. He’ll be majoring in physics, with a plan to move on to astrophysics in graduate school. He’s keeping an open mind about career options but is certain that astronomy will always be a big part of his life.
While stepping into this new chapter of his life, Hutchison has some helpful advice for younger students who are nurturing a persistent preoccupation, with space or any other area of study.
“Don’t be afraid to try new things and see what you like,” he says. “But when you’ve found something that really fascinates you, don’t be afraid to put a lot of time and energy into it. It won’t be wasted.”