Images of the Night Sky - Stephen DesRoches

Prince Edward Island : Images of the Night Sky


Is sunset the best time of the day? Along our Island beaches and in many other locations around the world, it is not uncommon to see groups of people gathering to watch the sun go down. From a photographer’s perspective, it is most perfect when the sky above is full of clouds but the horizon is a clear blue. This combination is the ingredient that allows the sun to light up the clouds from below and usually creates the most vibrant colours. Unfortunately, a sunset is an event that does not last very long and leaves little margin for wasting time fumbling around with camera settings. 

With only a possible 365 sunsets each year and, realistically, many fewer, I make an effort to photograph one as often as I can. But for those of us who stay around after sunset, the beauty of the blue twilight hours that blends into a clear night sky is pure magic.

On the darkest of nights, you can barely see the camera, let alone what exists past the lens. A flashlight can help but also makes it more challenging for your eyes to be constantly adjusting. For me, night photography is about trial and error. Using the camera at high ISO sensitivity settings, I will create one sketch image after another sketch image to see what the camera sees. Only after I’m aware of what is in the frame, and I can confirm the camera is even level with the horizon, can decisions on final camera settings happen.

When working with shutter speeds of 30 seconds or greater, I don’t even pretend to be able to predict the results. The longer the exposure, the brighter the image, but those 30 seconds also represent a period of time: a period of time displayed as a single frame. Anything moving, for example, will either disappear or suffer from motion blur. That can be very different from what our eyes see, and that can also either be our problem or a creative choice.

It’s late and I’m already in bed for the night. But my phone is ringing with a new aurora alert. It’s short notice but the message says a Kp6 could be active in the next 30 minutes. I need to go. The northern lights are so unpredictable that a sleepless night is worth the chance to see the sky glow green. It’s rare for Prince Edward Island but it does happen, looking north, when solar storm activity is high. It’s important to remember that the camera sensor is much more sensitive to light than our own eyes.

On a recent trip to Greenland, I watched the waves of green light dance across a black sky, so bright that it illuminated the ground below. That level of intensity does not happen in Prince Edward Island. Instead of the northern lights being directly overhead, we see the aurora far off in the northern distance. My advice is to find a website that offers a Kp forecast. The intensity of a storm is measured on a scale of 1 through 9 and that represents how far south you may be able to see a show. My camera bags are packed and ready to go once the Kp reaches 5 or higher on a cloud-free night.

Consider this. There are about 9.5 trillion kilometres in one light-year and, excluding the sun, the closest star to earth is 4.22 light-years away. That means the closest star (known as Proxima Centauri) is 40 trillion kilometres away and, on a clear-sky night, we can see thousands if not millions of stars visible to our unassisted eyes. I find these numbers incredibly difficult to understand or appreciate. Where does it end? Can it go on forever? How can there be only one planet with lifelike Earth? I have so many questions that will have no answers in my lifetime. What I do know, however, is that standing under a blanket of stars, I am quickly reminded that we are an infinitely small part of a greater system. The more one thinks about it, the more incredible it becomes.

Photography has given me the gift to stay interested. Interested in the details and my general surroundings of what I previously took for granted. Interested in my own impact and the world’s environmental issues. Give me a camera, and I lose all sense of time. Nighttime adds isolation and a visual silence to the experience. From a quick nap in the car to standing on an ice-covered beach feeling the cold air through many layers, this experience will find a home deep in memory. I will always become emotionally attached to a photograph and each memory they will trigger, but it’s the act of creating that keeps me going. It’s an endless hunt for a bigger treasure.

This story is an excerpt taken from my hardcover book "Images of the Night Sky", if you enjoyed this and would like more, please consider picking up a copy.

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