Photographing the Night Sky
Milky Way, Arizona
Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognised for his exploration of environmental issues and advocacy for the night sky. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.
Something wonderful has happened in photography: Ordinary people can now photograph the universe. Standing beneath the Milky Way has always been a beautiful sight, if you were lucky enough to find dark skies on a dark night. But the revelation of recent advances in digital photography is that the dim ribbon of silvery light we see with our naked eyes is actually a glorious, stupendous galaxy. For me the revelation came the first time I took a photograph of that galaxy and realize that just because the visible universe is so far away didn’t mean I needed a big telescope to photograph it. No, what I needed was a wide-angle lens because it is so huge—and we live in the middle of it. When I show young people my first published picture of the Milky Way I like to point out that this is their home. Earth lies about a third of the way out on one of those vast spiral arms of stars and dust clouds. Being able to take a snapshot of that universe is something new under the sun. And it’s great fun too.
Shoot for the Stars
Go for great images of the night sky. We’re living in a golden age of photographic technology. Ten years ago this simple picture would have been impossible. Five years ago it was cutting-edge. Now it is within the reach of any amateur photographer willing to go after it.
But don’t stop at just capturing the moon, a few stars, or the Milky Way. Put our world squarely in the middle of the universe that we can see with our naked eyes (it’s out there every night). Include the landscape—and look for opportunities to capture something unique.
For instance, Arizona Sky Village in Portal, Arizona, is a dark-sky housing development. Every house has a telescope built in, and one of the streets really is named Milky Way, which I wanted to show. A little pop of flash did the trick. I don’t know where else in the world you can get this picture.
Gear Up, Then Improvise
Gear won’t solve every problem, but there is a threshold for doing night-sky photography. A point-and-shoot camera just won’t get the shot. But most DSLR cameras can pull it off. My best advice is to get an f/2.8 or faster lens. The wider the better, but a 24mm, f/2.8, fixed focal length lens can do worlds of good.
Of course you need a tripod, the solid kind that doesn’t wobble if you touch it. A cable release is good—and pretty much essential if you want to go beyond 30-second exposures. A cable release that comes with a built-in timer is mighty handy.
And then learn to improvise. The night I shot this picture in American Samoa, my tripod was off in the belly of a plane somewhere. So I set my camera on the ledge of my balcony and propped it up with a small pebble. Rock solid, so to speak.
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