I had a few days free in Southern California, so I drove deep in to the desert in search of darkness. Armed with a my modest a6500 and a rented Hyundai Elantra, I ventured between Jawbone Canyon and the Alabama Hills to capture every last little photon I could find.
These photons… they are a long way from home.
The light emitted from the galactic center has been traveling for around 26,000 years, and that’s relatively young on celestial scales. The Milky Way is 100,000 lightyears across, and some of the stars we see are billions of years old. What a long, arduous, mostly-lonely journey for a photon to get from starburst to retina. Usually passing right through us unnoticed, a few photons are unfortunate enough to travel so far, only to collide and be absorbed in our retina. Probably not an honor for a photon so far from home… though I’d be stoked to find intelligent life across the universe.
Hell, I’d be stoked to find it as far as Washington, DC. *snark snark snark*
Thanks to that intelligence, we can now use camera sensors to collect a bunch of those photons and make something more of them:
I was fortunate to spend some time with my old friend Ian from The Lonely Speck and his lovely wife Diana. One of the bullets on his long, amazing human resume is being a world-renowned astrophotographer, so who better to journey along? I soaked in some tips, and we soaked in some of those lonely, intrepid photons together.
There’s so much nuance to astrophotography, both in the field and how you process an image. It’s enabling to think of it more as a scientific observation; collecting samples of photons whizzing past, and finding creative ways to eliminate background noise so we can pay attention to the sources of light. Long exposures, wide lenses, and some computational statistical prowess all help.
I was very impressed with the abilities of my little Sony a6500. I carry it as a lightweight travel camera, saving my Nikon D750, a full-frame behemoth, for more intentional use. But the a6500, with it’s APS-C sensor, gathered great low-light data. With a just a hint of post-processing, I was able to generate some astonishing starscapes.
Sleeping in a rental car has it’s drawbacks, but it offers a free hotel with an ever-changing view from the front door. I was able to do 3+ days in the desert for <$300, just gas, food, and water. A fine price to pay for a little meditative retreat and these photos to keep with me.
I swear, dear photons, that you didn’t die in vain.