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The Star Chaser

By day, Tanja Sund is a publishER AND AN EDITOR. By night, she Is AstroTanja, the only female Astrophotographer in Africa.

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Many are mesmerized by the flickering night sky that makes Earth minute in comparison. A few may recognize Venus, the morning star, and one or two other planets, but almost all are overcome by acatalepsy – the inability to fully comprehend – when it comes to the vastness of the universe. Perhaps this is why the unknown that confounds us, and simultaneously fascinates, is often accompanied by a deep-seated desire to unfurl mysteries.

Tanja Sund juggles three South African fitness publications, her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Sienna, the planets, stars and the galaxy’s wonders all in a day’s – and night’s – work. Granted, it is an unusual combination, but this entrepreneur has modelled her business to allow her to work half-days so that she can pursue her passions.

The Astrophotographer As An Entrepreneur

Sund studied graphic design and animation at art school in Johannesburg. She ran her own design firm and did a lot of freelance agency work, before she met her fitness trainer, who would later become her husband and today is a close friend and business partner.

“Business made a lot of sense to me, so we decided that we wanted to work together and there wasn’t a publication in SA for that niche… So the natural progression was because of my business sense and his passion for it, we were able to pull the magazine titles together.”

It would not have been possible without the sacrifice of their weekends, holidays, social lives, and many a sunset and sunrise at the office. But it paid off.

“Because I am a business owner it’s not just a position [that of editor] I will give to someone. I don’t think I’ll find someone who will look after it the way that I do. The whole team has control over the magazine but my function is business management because we have three titles now and we do merchandizing,” says Sund.

Being an entrepreneur has allowed her to free up her time and choose her lifestyle.

“I started hiring the right people for my team and now I have set up a team that is pretty much independent of me, so I can be a complete mom in the afternoons and I can do my own things at night and I have the freedom to travel.”

Sund attributes her business prowess to The 4-hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss.

“A lot of people do the normal 8-5 and get stuck in traffic for two hours a day and they don’t do the things they love, they do things because they have to get them done, but the thing is it’s all about the mindset,” she says.

The business owner and fitness fanatic shines when she compares life to a gym workout.

“It’s like gym, with anything in life, you don’t find the time, you make the time. You’re not going to get stuff served on a platter and everyone is going to dream ‘Oh, this would be so nice,’ well work for it, the only person who is going to give it to you, is you.”

She finds herself applying many of the skills she utilizes in publishing to her astrophotography.

“It’s a very deep rabbit hole but start somewhere and as soon as you get involved and see the possibilities, it opens up a whole new world. I like technical challenges and that’s why this mergers passion with the intellectual side of problem solving, astronomy and art,” says Sund.

The Entrepreneur As An Astrophotographer

“It started with my dad, we borrowed a Dobsonian telescope from a friend of his. It didn’t even have a stand, so we used to rest it on our braai [barbeque]. I remember many cold winter nights… With Haley’s comment, he woke me up in the middle of the night and carried me out of bed,” says Sund.

An early childhood fascination in astronomy led to hours of watching Yoda and peering, with one eye shut and draped in blankets, through telescopes.

“I was a Star Wars fan, growing up I watched it repeatedly. Just the whole concept of interstellar travel and other galaxies, life and adventure [intrigued me].”

Astrotanja – as she is known in the online astrophotography community to fellow purveyors of the night sky – bought her first telescope, a Bushnell reflector sonutonian 3-inch, in 2007. Since then, her evenings, weekends and vacations are planned around the heavens. She has already photographed deep space from Africa, North America and Europe, and in late 2013 traveled to Iceland to photograph the Northern Lights. Astrophotography became her “professional hobby”, as she calls it, in early 2012.

“I know of three other female [astrophotographers in the world]. I’m sure there are more females out there but they are not very active online,” she says.

She is yet to meet, even virtually, another female, African astrophotographer. They seem to be as rare as alien sightings, which is one of the most common questions she is asked.

“I believe that there is life elsewhere, I don’t know if it’s intelligent life but honestly if I was an alien, I wouldn’t want to come to earth, I don’t think our civilization is advanced enough. Being of a superior intelligence, being able to travel through space, they should know that if they reveal themselves to us there will be anarchy. Just leave Earth alone. But I definitely think that there is other microbial and non-intelligent life out there, the universe is just too big. If you think about evolution or the age of man, we’ve only been here for such a short time of Earth’s lifespan, dinosaurs have come and gone, so exactly the same may have happened elsewhere, where there may have been intelligent life that may have been destroyed. I think it’s very narrow-minded to think that we’re the only living creatures, look at how many billions of stars are in our galaxy and then there are billions of galaxies out there. We’re not that unique.”

The curious often ask her if she has managed to photograph a UFO.

“I’ve seen one weird thing but I’m not sure if it was a UFO. I have to think about this intelligently. I’m sure it was Chinese lanterns but it was like the three-point that a lot of people describe and they move together. I ran into my home to get my camera but then they weren’t there anymore,” she says.

Aliens or no aliens, Sund’s greatest love is deep sky photography because it is all about the editing technique and stacking principle. She has learnt to see the potential of a photograph in its pixels, long before she has edited or stacked it. Sund prefers deep sky photography to star trails – those long-exposure photographs that illustrate the apparent movement of the stars, which is actually due to the Earth’s rotation – as it is more challenging.

Her best advice to aspiring astrophotographers is: “As with anything, if you’re passionate about it, if you’re persistent and you just educate yourself, and the education is out there, [you can do it]. Everything I do in my life is like that: I let my passion drive me.”

But astrophotography will never be her full-time job because, in her opinion, relying on it financially will kill the passion. Sund has already presented workshops at Africa’s biggest photography expo that is held annually in Johannesburg, but that is as far as it goes.

“I’m not interested in that because financially I make more money with my publication, so why would I work hard to free up my time only to fill it in?”

By using her background in publishing, she hopes to write a beginner’s guidebook to astrophotography and sell her photographs through an online gallery.

While her head may be in the stars, this entrepreneur’s feet are firmly on the ground.

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