If you’ve ever seen a picture of the Milky Way or a shot of the night sky that shows a seemingly impossible number of stars you’ve probably thought to yourself “There is no way that is actually what it looked like. Surely that was photoshopped”. In most cases, you’d be wrong.
One of my very favorite things about photography is its ability to show us things that we can’t see on our own. This can be due to our inability to focus on itty bitty objects, the action in a scene moving way too quickly to take it all in, or the human eye’s inability to process time and light the way a camera can. Star trail shots are a great and obvious example of this. We all know that the stars are carving big arcs across the sky but it’s hard to actually imagine it happening when we can’t see it with our own eyes. Photography makes it possible to track that movement and show what is happening in a way that we would never be able to see on our own.
But it’s not just about star trails. Regular old astrophotography does the same thing. If you point a camera at the sky, open the aperture wide, crank up the ISO, and set your shutter speed really low, you’ll capture things that you can’t see in real life. Under these circumstances your camera is able to collect way more light than your eyes ever can. The sensor picks up the tiniest glimmers of light from the farthest away stars and brings them into view. And the results are magical.
A few weeks ago I hiked with a bunch of badass women into a backcountry hut a few miles outside of Aspen, Colorado. The stars were out in full force so I put down the wine (ok, so maybe I took it with me), ran outside, and set up my camera and tripod. In real life the scene looked something like this, which certainly did not suck:
What my camera was able to capture when I got the settings right looked like this:
Those stars were all there. I just couldn’t see them.
It’s not some kind of Photoshop trickery and it’s not cheating. It’s not unlike the way a microscope or telescope can help you see things that your eyes just weren’t built to focus on. And in reality, while the second pictures doesn’t represent what the scene actually looked like, it is certainly an accurate portrayal of how that night felt. A warm and glowing cabin underneath a perfect starry sky.
Shooting the night sky is still something that is new to me and I am by no means an expert at it. The pictures above were my first shot at it and leave much to be improved on. But with summer coming (one can only hope …) and camping season upon us, I’m hoping to continue to improve my skills and add to my collection. I’m chasing the Milky Way this year and I couldn’t be more excited about it.