Looking out of the window of a moving train

Working in a shitty call centre when I was younger, I did appreciate the chance to freely post on my desk whatever I wanted. For about two months, I had Carl Sagan’s wonderful image of Earth, taken from really far way. The ‘Pale Blue Dot’:

“ “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”

I didn’t really know how to express what that image inspired in me, back then — probably because my speciality was selling tickets to Kylie Minogue concerts over the phone.

For me, Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot represents the real benefits of chilling out and stepping back. The smallness of our planet relative to other things doesn’t really have any literal bearing on local and global squabbles and problems, but thinking about our place in the universe is an amazingly effective way of restoring calmness and rationality, after you find yourself focusing too intensely and too anxiously on something. It’s a circuit breaker.

This is why I love looking at (and photographing) space. It feels like looking out of the window of a moving train. It’s a reminder of the size and physical glory of an expanse we all have full access to. You can shake yourself out of whatever narrow, blurred obsession that’s bouncing around the walls of your thinking when you take some time out to take in this silent, clear stretch of grandeur. It’s meditative.

Below, some big pictures and videos I’ve taken of space and how we’re moving relative to it. These are all fun, easy and relatively inexpensive to do yourself.

Turon Gates

All three of the pictures above were taken at Turon Gates campground, on a really, really cold winter’s night. Cloudless nights are colder, so you’re going to get some good views. The photos above are largely untouched — I used a Sigma f1.8 28mm with a Canon 60D and a cheap remote that lets the shutter stay open. The full album’s here.

I love how long-exposure photographs of the south pole seem to have a vibrant sensation of movement. It’s just an offshoot of how we perceive lines and curves, but it’s a fun feeling.

Norah Head

The lighthouse at Norah Head wasn’t easy to get to, but I managed to grab a few pictures (the rest here). The star trails are created by taking a photo every few seconds (an ‘intervalometer’ automatically triggers this so you can just leave it outside), and stacking them using a piece of software called Startrails.

Side note — leaving your camera outside overnight can be noisy. We were staying in a relatively urban area so I had to…improvise to get the noise levels down so the neighbours weren’t disturbed.

Startrails also lets you save down each cumulative stacked image, which I piled together into a video, and then a gif, to get the effect in the final image. It looks cool.

San Francisco

The first picture I made using a fish-eye lens — my brother’s. The second are a few timelapse videos, including the ‘cumulative’ stacks I mentioned earlier. They’re odd but interesting.

Other things

A timelapse pointed at the south pole, taken in Marsfield, Sydney. How does one figure out where the south pole is without standing there for five hours to watch where the stars move? I use Google Sky — a free app that uses augmented reality. Just point your phone at the sky, and find what you want. It’s fantastic. I have no idea why this photo turned out with a beautiful steel grey colour scheme juxtaposed with the green trees.

This was taken in the Blue Mountains — a good example of how stacking star trails can go a little wrong if you have too many stars in your picture. A rogue plan darts across the lower right hand side — you could probably determine it’s speed by measuring the distance between the red blobs as the tail lights flash.

This is a timelapse of the Milky Way rising over Jervis Bay, NSW. It’s my pride and joy. You can watch it in 4K if your screen can handle it. I don’t really know what happened but it just turned out perfect. It’s beautiful and detailed and strangely relaxing.

A photo taken on a VERY cold night in New Zealand, near Lake Tekapo. I never really know why the colours in these photos come out the way they do. Other photos in New Zealand turned out purple.

I left my camera snapping away at the beach overnight on the balcony of an apartment in Port Macquarie. It coincided with some fireworks — which turned out quite nicely. It’s hard to get an interesting foreground in pictures of the night sky.

For most of these, I used a Canon 60D, a decent lens (always less than $200), and my cheap intervalometer (off eBay for $20) and a tripod. Everything is free or cheap. It’s a fun hobby. You can love your day job (like I do) but it’s always healthy to take a break — cramming the ancient light and grandeur of blobs of organic nuclear energy onto the tiny receiver in my camera is a nice way to do it. It’s fun to gaze.

The ABC’s series on stargazing airs April 4 to 6 on the ABC. Check out the hashtag and the ABC Open Stargazing page for an amazing array of amateur and professional space photos.

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