Astrophotography: Viewing The Milky Way Through The Lens Of A Camera
It takes a lot of darkness to see the ghostly traces of the Milky Way hanging beyond our tiny world. It also takes a lot of patience, but the results often resemble something you might find on the cover of a sci-fi fantasy novel. It’s not fantasy; nor is it fiction. It’s astrophotography.
It’s not the mere click of a shutter button. It can take minutes or even hours to capture the light of a hundred billion stars, but astrophotography has become a popular hobby for both photographers and amateur astronomers — and not necessarily a prohibitively expensive one. Taking pictures of the Milky Way can be done with basic cameras, both film and digital.
The night sky has always fascinated humanity, and glimpses of the Milky Way elicit an emotional response from many. There is something magical and awe-inspiring in the photographs which reveal the majesty of what exists beyond Earth’s sky and no small part of that awe can come from the knowledge that anyone, in the right conditions, could produce images that bring a sense of cosmic wonder to people around the world.
The Milky Way. Its name comes from its appearance as a spill of cloudy stars which arches over the night sky. It has its sources in Classical Latin and Hellenistic Greek with via lactea (milky way) and galaktikos kyklos (milky circle), but its origins come from the Ancient Greek, where the word galaxy (galaxias) comes from a root word that means milk (gala).
It has significance in mythology and folklore for at least a dozen cultures. To the Kaurna Aborigines of southern Australia, it was a river in the skyworld called Wodliparri. To other bands, it was seen as thousands of flying foxes that carried away a famous dancer.
To the ancient Hungarians, it represented a road for warriors; in Hindu stories, the Milky Way is called Akasaganga, the Ganges River of the Sky. In the creation mythos of ancient Mesopotamia, the stars were the tail of Tiamet, a monster of chaos described as a sea serpent or dragon. The Milky Way has also been likened to a pool of cow’s milk, a spilling trail of cornmeal, embers from a fire, a pathway for birds, a herd of cattle, and a canoe.
It was proven in 1971 that the Finno-Ugric’s “Pathway of the Birds” is scientifically accurate. Migratory birds use the Milky Way as a guide in their annual journey south.
It becomes a little overwhelming to consider that every star you see in the sky might have its own planetary system. And it doesn’t help to discover that the Milky Way is smaller than astronomers previously speculated. From the ground, the cloudy spray of stars still looks massive and seems to speak to the most primitive part of the human experience. Humanity’s ancestors looked up at the night sky and saw the same formation, and were inspired to give the Milky Way a place of power in ancient mythological narratives.
Using time-lapse photography, a dark sky reveals light from the Milky Way which may be invisible to the human eye. A largely unobstructed view and a camera capable of long exposure shots are all that’s needed, but astrophotographers generally agree on a third point: the darker the sky, the better the picture.
Dark sky parks and reserves are areas kept free of artificial light pollution. They are usually found in national parks or near observatories. The majority of such designated preserves are located in North America but the worldwide number is growing as the importance of astronomy becomes recognized.
Photographer and filmmaker Gavin Heffernan has added to the body of astrophotography with a video that captures the sky’s beauty in King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Park in California’s southern Sierra Nevada.
Gavin, when posting the time-lapse video to Vimeo, wrote:
“I found numerous daytime landscape photos of its stunning vistas, but very little night astrophotography. With the giant sequoia trees and the impossibly steep cliffs of King’s Canyon serving as beautiful-yet-formidable ‘obstacles’ to an unobstructed sky, it seemed a worthy challenge to seek out some night skyscapes in the parks, while capturing the verdant beauty of the landscapes by day.”
As reported by CNet, “Kings” was shot over a period of three days and two nights and takes only four minutes to reveal the Milky Way in its full glory. A stunning location for any type of photography, the giant trees and steep cliffs create a backdrop of unparalleled landscapes. It’s the perfect place for an earth-bound shot of our hometown galaxy.
You can see the video here, on Heffernan’s Vimeo page.
You can find out more about dark sky reserves at the International Dark-Sky Association’s website here.
For more stunning pictures of the Milky Way, visit Space.com‘s astrophotography archive.
[Image Courtesy of Gavin Heffernan/Sunchaser Pictures]