Jan. 15th - Raton, NM
thing you may have noticed in my previous photographs is the presence of red or white streaks across the sky. When taking photos of the stars, I leave open my camera lens for some period of time no less than 13 seconds. During this time, any lights flashed on the framed landscape or in the sky are reflected in my photo. Sometimes this effect can be of advantage, and when done intentionally it’s called “light painting,” other times, it represents an unwanted and unavoidable source of light pollution.
For an astrophotographer, when the sky or landscape brightening comes from an unintentional or unavoidable source – the moon, light pollution, airplanes and satellites – it is an element to work around or take advantage of. Here are a couple of the ways I think about different sources of sky brightening when taking pictures of the stars.
Artificial light at night from aerial sources has proven to be a real detriment to my photographs and view of naturally dark and silent nights. There have been several nights, and this night was no exception, where airplanes flying overhead tear open the silence in a rumbling thunder and leave streaks of red or white across the sky. While airplanes may be the most obnoxious to us on Earth with ears and eyes, satellites too leave similar laser-like streaks across dark skies.
What scares me more about satellites, however, is their predicted growth. Elon Musk has been working on the massive Starlink project, which uses a constellation of low-orbiting satellites to provide internet and cell services to a large portion of the worlds’ population. Today, Musk tweeted: “1469 Starlink satellites active, 272 moving to operational orbits, Laser links activated soon.” Though the cause is noble, and they claim to be conscious of preserving the night sky, those satellites will come to make up a huge problem for astronomers, both amateur and professional, as well as astronauts having to avoid space junk.
If left unchecked, the amount of space junk and further aerial-based light pollution will only continue to grow, blinking out our chances of seeing dark skies from Earth. A possible solution for international dark sky parks comes from Olympia National Forest – the most naturally sounding, noise pollution free place in the U.S. Advocates of this forest and its untouched, Earth-made soundtrack have suggested the FAA ban overhead flights to preserve the natural soundscape. The same must be done by international dark sky parks advocates, for both airplanes and satellites, in order to preserve the natural sky’s darkness.
When it comes to sky and landscape brightening from the moon, zenith, or any other natural source, you have to be patient and observant. You need to work around the brightest phases of the moon when you’re trying to capture dark skies, the Milky Way, or any other celestial objects with any amount of detail. That said, moonlight can and has proven on this trip to be a great help in capturing clear, noise-free landscapes. This is helpful when trying to elevate a composite photo, in which two or more images are combined to highlight each aspect of a nighttime photo.
One photo, or several stacked photos must be taken specifically for the stars, when the night sky is free of any brightening, and one much longer exposure, or again several stacked photos for the landscape. Then, in Photoshop, or your editing software of choice, the sky and landscape photos can be combined, creating a manufactured image that speaks to reality more accurately than raw or near raw photographs. I will be sharing my composites over the coming year on my Instagram page, so look out for those!
Artificial light at night from land-based sources can and does have some very appealing aesthetic and symbolic functions, despite the role it often plays in light pollution. When used sparingly and appropriately, there are many good and inspiring uses of outdoor lighting. Just think of Union Square holiday market lit up by strings of warm, white lights, or the Empire State Building at night, rainbow lights streaking up its sides in honor of pride month. I’m sure you can think of other special uses of outdoor lighting at night unique to your area.
Just outside of Raton, NM, Connor and I, from the suggestions of several staff members at Best Western Plus, drove through mountain passes, and up onto large, grassy plateaus. We were looking for Johnson Mesa but found so much more. Horses, standing sentinel in the cold wind watched as I capture their muscular figures. Johnson Mesa Church, a lone and stony building made its home amid the pastures. Along the highway, we saw houses with different levels of awareness for dark skies. Some had warm, modest lighting out front, others none but curtained windows. But, there were far too many with bright, unshielded high-pressure sodium or cool LED lights, mounted on telephone poles near garages or barns.
If the argument goes that these obnoxious and insensitive lights will actually protect your property from theft, then I must protest. What are these lights actually doing besides showing the thieves what it is you have to be stolen? Stop hurting everyone and the environment around you for some misplaces hope that these outdoor lights will keep you and your stuff save – they won’t.