Capturing images of night skies has been a long-time interest of mine, and when conditions are right, you can usually find me making an enthused effort to pursue these rewarding, but sometimes challenging pictures. When things work out well, the resulting photographs might appear serene and peaceful, but a lot of times, I find that photographing celestial bodies can be a fairly demanding endeavor.
Surprisingly, one of the problems with photographing stars, planets, and the Earth’s sun and moon, is how fast they move through the sky. It doesn’t seem like it, but when you try to compose a night sky frame in a tight, aesthetically-appealing way, it becomes quickly apparent that our planet really is in constant motion, changing our perspective of the heavens every few seconds.
Some of my favorite night sky photos often offer a hint toward man’s relationship to the cosmos, so when I can, I’ll try and incorporate Earth-bound elements into the frame. In fact, I keep a mental roster of potential locations as options for future images. Sites looking west, east, north and south, sites high on hills, sites illuminated, sites silhouetted. Farmsteads, windmills, church steeples, weather vanes and cityscapes are all potential foreground elements.
I’ll track sky charts and space-oriented websites for potentially interesting sky events and I am usually generally aware of moon cycles and sunrise/set times. Over the years, I’ve had a number of successful efforts photographing eclipses, comets, planetary conjunctions, auroras and sun and moon events. Often, though, a preconceived idea for an image falls apart when I attempt to execute it. There are sometimes just too many unpredictable variables.
Through trial, I’ve discovered that long lens exposures of more than a few seconds will begin to result in motion blur from stars and planets. That means that every half-minute or so, the celestial elements of your photo may not be quite where you want it to be. Long exposures at night are a necessity, which means I’m constantly moving my tripod to keep the composition intact. Add to the equation rapidly changing light conditions and broad luminance disparities between sky and ground elements, there’s a lot of potential for things to get difficult. Mosquito swarms, city light pollution and even suspicious rural neighbors and their protective barking dogs can all be unique night challenges. Those wonderfully clear mid-winter nights can be brutally cold, and don’t even get me started on clouds.
At any rate, when things do work out and the planets metaphorically align, it feels wonderful to know you may be capturing a completing unique, totally spontaneous moment that can disappear forever in minutes. I was lucky to have that experience a few times last week, represented in the composite image above. The outer images were captured a several moments apart before a local fireworks show. A hot air balloon made an opportune appearance above the setting sun, and, shortly after I made the photograph of the same sun’s rays glinting off an adjacent lake. The inner images (Venus and Jupiter on the left, and the moonrise on the right) took a little more planning and some on-the-fly adjustments, but were taken within a downtown city block and 10 minutes of each other.
For a few other examples of my night and evening sky images, have a look at the Our World & Other Worlds gallery of the website.
Below: The light from a full winter's moon casts shadows under a backyard pergola.
© 2014 John Hart Photography