Photographers who are active on social media often get a lot of questions about the technicalities of photography. Especially about nightscape photography – the subgenre of landscape imaging where you basically have a dark landscape set to some celestial backdrop featuring twinkly stars. Either through commenting on a shared image, a direct message, or an email, people ask about the type of gear that was used to capture a specific shot or any of the numerous variables that make up a given photo. Variables that range from the time of day to how many degrees of rotation on the polarizing filter. But this time I got an email that announced the inevitable demise of the subgenre of nightscape photography. But there’s a strong, intrinsic motivation for nightscape photography that I want to share with you here.
One time, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in August, I got another such email about one of my own works that I shared the weekend before. The message didn’t necessarily inquire about any of the technical variables that resulted in the shared image, so it got my attention. Instead, the author gave his opinion about a whole (emerging) subgenre of landscape photography: Nightscape photography.
In short, the nightly subgenre seemed entirely pointless to him as stars over a landscape at night felt fake; a farce. Therefore, nightscape photography would never become a valid subgenre of the art of photography.
The Milky Way could never be seen with the naked eye in such detail, so every photograph of it, is essentially a lie.
It’s true enough that with long shutter speeds, extreme ISO settings, and wide-open apertures, a lot more detail can be photographed than can be seen with the unaided eye. But does that mean everything photographed under extreme settings is not a part of reality? That does imply that there is a specific value on your any of your camera’s exposure settings that says: “Ridiculously light sensitive. Not representing the human eye.” What about frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum that we don’t see? Is infrared light a farce too?
Let’s take a step back. The true message of the story wasn’t a rant by some crazy person on the internet. I mean, he does have a good point to some degree. Why would we want to imagine anything that can’t be seen by humans anyway? Without defending art and beauty once more, I think that the reason behind any form of photography is steeped in our desire to explore. To see realms that are beyond our own eyes is the stuff of interpretation, myth, religion, and science.
Science and Van Gogh
We don’t perceive with our eyes but with our brain. Our eyes are complex “instruments” that translate photons into electric signals that our brain can then process, in order for our mind to make sense of it. To put it into photographer's terms: Our cameras are the instruments, we are the brain, and our audience the mind. The mind, but also our audience is constantly fueled with patterns and associations formed from memory and genetics which color those electric signals. This results in different perceptions of reality and gives an explanation as to why aquamarine looks more blue to one person and more green to the other.
The Himba tribe from northern Namibia, for instance, does not classify green and blue separately, the way Westerners do, but it (the tribe) does differentiate among various shades of what we call green. - Maud Newton, NY Times
While Neil deGrasse Tyson oozes with conviction and stage presence in the video underneath, the “people’s astrophysicist” tells you a bit about photography and art that’s relevant to this story.
Art isn’t all science. The very nature of art is that it is “artificial;” man-made. That means that you would have to create in order to be creative. Not unlike myself, photographers from around the world are utilizing multiple exposures to achieve their vision. We all know about HDR-photography for instance. But bracketing exposures isn’t everything you can do to get more out of a scene than any single exposure can. Don’t have a tilt-shift lens? Use perspective blending or focus stacking. Modern cameras like the Nikon D850 are even kitted out with built-in focus stacking tools, while the specialist Nikon D810a allows for longer preset exposures while being sensitive to the light from distant hydrogen nebulae.
Personally, I enjoy the fact that camera manufacturers cater to the needs of photographers. In turn, photographers then learn to work with newly incorporated tools and find novel approaches to creating art that will change the face of photography again and again.
The Light of a Trillion Suns
Here’s a short, simplified story about how astrophotography works. Have you ever wondered why the maximum preset shutter speed on most cameras is 30 seconds? Because there’s an electric current flowing in your camera's sensor during the time the shutter is open, the temperature of your sensor increases the longer it stays open. Eventually, that heat interferes with the image you’re taking a picture of in the form of noise. So, we need to keep the sensor cool in order to lengthen the exposure. This way, we take pictures of stars instead of noise. 30 seconds is also a limiting factor in wide-angle nightscape photography. At 14mm and 30 seconds, the pinpoint stars start to trail as a result of the rotation of the Earth. So we increase the ISO, right? Well, yes. The ISO can be increased to a certain point, but as we know, that also introduces (another kind of) noise. To combat noise, astrophotographers let the sensor cool down in between many consecutive exposures. And to work against the rotation of the Earth, we can track our planet’s movement along the firmament or put the camera in space, like the Hubble Space Telescope.Original image by: NASA, ESA, H. Teplitz and M. Rafelski (IPAC/Caltech), A. Koekemoer (STScI), R. Windhorst (Arizona State University), and Z. Levay (STScI).
Without Tipping the Scales
To me, nightscape photography is about showing a relationship between the earth and the stars; between a human scale that we can understand and a scale so vast, which we are never truly able to comprehend. Nightscape photography is about finding the balance between those scales; a strong, earthly foreground and a pure, star-spangled background. Through nightscape photography, I aim to visually tell the audience about something bigger than ourselves; about something bigger than the planet we call home.
I think creation is about shaping reality, rather than capturing it. So by all and through any means necessary, show your audience how you see the world around you, because I for one, am looking forward to experiencing your art.