Shooting Stars: Capturing The Night On Camera

Photographer Colin Legg makes time-lapse movies of celestial scenes, from auroras to eclipses. Photographing mostly in remote parts of Australia, where human-made light doesn't compete with starlight, Legg describes some of the challenges of this type of photography: from babysitting cameras for days and nights on end to running electronics in the backcountry.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Continuing with our planetary theme today, Flora Lichtman is going to talk about her video pick of the week. And it is a beauty.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: It's a perfect illustration for our Book Club segment. This week's video is landscape astrophotography, which I have to say looks a lot more compelling than it sounds.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: It's really...

FLATOW: Sell it...

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: No, it's really beautiful. It was all done by Colin Legg, who's a photographer in Australia. And he's making these time-lapse scenes of the night sky. And I'm sure that our listeners have seen this stuff before. But really, I think this is some of the most spectacular version of this kind of celestial eye-candy that I have - I've ever seen.

FLATOW: It really is breaking new ground. You think you've seen a good time-lapse of the sky in other places and sunsets and - nothing like...

LICHTMAN: It just gets better and better. And I think part of that, in talking to Colin Legg about his work, is because the cameras are getting better. So he said, for example, you know, to take these and make these sequences, you take 30-second exposures. You leave the shutter open on your camera for 30 seconds. And what happens is that you can pick up colors in the night sky, not even the Aurora, in other places that you could never see with your own eyes, because, remember, we're sampling the night sky with little machines in our head that sample it one-sixtieth of a second.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And when you think about that, it's kind of remarkable, he says, that we can even see the Milky Way at all, because it takes 30 seconds for a camera to see it. And then he goes all night. I mean he takes nine hours or sometimes days upon nights of footage, you know, so thousands of frames, and puts together these sequences.

FLATOW: They're gorgeous. They're up there on our video pick of the week, up on our SCIENCE FRIDAY website at sciencefriday.com. Does he do - he does IMAX also, doesn't he?

Yeah. This was something that was really interesting to me. Have you ever thought about where that kind of IMAX footage comes from? I hadn't considered it until talking to him. So he did an 11 day and night shoot out in the middle of a lake bed. And you have to do the night sky. So to do that, you need to be in a place that's really dark without a lot of light pollution. So that means you're in the middle of nowhere.

Right.

LICHTMAN: And how do you run your electronics, your five DSLR cameras? Because that's what it takes to get the number of pixels you need for that supersized IMAX screen? You have to have solar panels. You have to have a crazy setup. It's - I mean it was amazing.

FLATOW: It's amazing.

LICHTMAN: It's amazing.

FLATOW: It's our video pick of the week on our SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, here with Flora Lichtman and Annette Heist, talking about a special extra, extra stuff for our book club.

ANNETTE HEIST, BYLINE: Inspiration(ph).

LICHTMAN: That's right. Read the book. Watch the video.

FLATOW: Did you gather any tips for aspiring - that's the first thing I saw. I saw it, I said I have to do this. I had some...

LICHTMAN: You did actually say that.

FLATOW: I did.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I said I have to...

LICHTMAN: Out loud.

FLATOW: I have to make these photos. Yeah, I like to fool around with cameras. I love looking at, you know, the night sky. I'm glad that Orion, my favorite, is out now in the winter time. Can you give us any tips? Can you collect - can you give us how we could do this ourselves?

LICHTMAN: I'm hoping that we can get more, but I have a few starter tips. I wondered the same thing. I was like, I can't believe this is possible. So here's a really nice one that works for any photographer: If you need to steady your tripod, you're shooting in a windy place, like let's say you're on the top of a mountain like Colin Legg is all the time, you can just take a bag, fill it with rocks and attach it to the tripod. I loved that because he has this very, like, high-tech setup and then he has a bag of rocks attached to his tripod.

FLATOW: Simple stuff.

LICHTMAN: But also, you know, he does eclipses. So in this video montage, just to give you the real hard sell, everybody....

FLATOW: It's a beauty.

(LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: ...he does a - there's a full solar eclipse that he captures. And there's a lot - a huge light change, as anyone who's experienced an eclipse knows, during the course of the eclipse. So you actually have to preprogram your exposures. And then it's like hands-free during the actual eclipse.

FLATOW: Yeah. But the comment he makes on the video that you brought in so well is that he knows how awe - jaw-dropping an eclipse is going to be when it happens, so he doesn't want to have to fool around with his camera. He wants it on auto pilot so he could sit there and watch what goes on...

LICHTMAN: That's exactly right. He said he doesn't want - he made a promise to himself that even if everything melted down during the eclipse, he wouldn't be bothered by it because he wanted to just experience the joy of that amazing scene.

FLATOW: Yeah, it is amazing. It's up there on our video pick of the week. It's a solar eclipse, all kinds of stuff in there. Annette.

HEIST: Well, I just wanted to let listeners know that we know the next book for the book club already, so you have plenty of time to read over the holidays. Get your eggnog and a copy of "The Andromeda Strain."

FLATOW: Oh.

LICHTMAN: Michael Crichton.

HEIST: Michael Crichton. Came out in 1969. So we're getting into the way back machine again for some...

FLATOW: You can't cheat and watch the movie. You have to read the book.

HEIST: Oh, you can. But you can do both.

FLATOW: That was a game-changing book, if I remember correctly. Got people really to think about all that kind of stuff.

LICHTMAN: I've never read it, so...

HEIST: I haven't read it either. It's been on my list for a long time. So that's the book for January. I promise to give some extra time this time around. So if you get that gift card and you don't know what to buy, get a copy of "The Andromeda Strain."

FLATOW: Yeah. It's a good follow-up to this book we're talking about, Dava Sobel's book, "The Planets."

LICHTMAN: Harder to do an illustration for that...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah. It's - well, if you watched the movie, they did some good...

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I guess so (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: They make up some good illustrations. Well, I want to thank you - thanks - I'm going to gavel close our book club for this session. We're going to say goodbye. Thanks, Flora. Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor, thank you.

LICHTMAN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And Annette Heist, our senior producer.

HEIST: Thank you.

FLATOW: Join us again for Michael - next month, Michael Crichton's book "The Andromeda Strain." We'll be talking about that. And don't forget to go to our website at sciencefriday.com. Up there is our video pick of the week. Incredible time-lapse photography.

LICHTMAN: Can't oversell it.

FLATOW: Can't oversell this one. You will be happy to share this one.

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