Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Touching Andromeda

There is nothing quite like being with the night for several hours uninterrupted, alone and with no artificial light. When I was shooting stars at 11,000 feet in the White Mountains I stood looking up from sundown to around 3 am. It was exhilarating. At that altitude you see the stars with such clarity and there are so many of them! It is simply awesome. In fact, there were so many stars and they were so bright I could walk around in the dark without a flashlight.

When the night got dark enough I turned on my camera and pointed it in the direction I had been gazing for the past hour or so. I set the camera to expose for about 30 seconds. In that amount of time the camera’s sensor picks up considerably more light from the stars than I can see with the naked eye. This is a picture taken looking toward the southern horizon where the center of the Milky Way can be found in the constellation Sagittarius. Look at the tremendous number of stars!

These kinds of images are best captured with a wide angle lens shooting as wide as the lens will let you.  To figure out how long to expose without creating star trails,  divide the focal length you are shooting into 400, the result will be the number of seconds you can expose without creating visible star trails. So, for instance, a 20mm lens can expose for 20 seconds.  If you have never taken nighttime images of the stars,  you will be amazed at what your camera is able to capture!

The immensity is hard to fathom.

In fact, with a 16mm lens I picked up a visible image of Andromeda, our neighboring galaxy! I didn’t realize that was even possible and didn't know I had captured it until I saw the image much later on my computer. Here’s the image, I named it “Touching Andromeda” because the tip of the limb of the Bristlecone Pine is just touching it. Look closely and you will see the disk of the galaxy.

This is one of the many reasons why I love photography: it gets me out into the world in such a way that I am continually reminded of what a wondrous universe this is. So much beauty and mystery all around us, a beauty that is seemingly impossible, yet wonderful, and glorius and captivating.

Standing under this amazing canopy of stars I can feel the perspective: one little pinpoint of consciousness observing something so immense and grand, and beyond comprehension. And so BIG! Those stars I am looking at are so far away that none of them are where they were when their light left: what I am seeing is history, a snap shot of how things were eons ago. For instance, that image of Andromeda took 2.5 million years to get here, at the speed of light! 186 thousand miles a second times 2.5 million years.

And we can take pictures of it in the night sky!  Oh, my.

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