Photographing The Night Sky: Slow-Speed With New Technology Amazes

Kevin Ohannessian Author, Kill Screen

Through the use of slow-speed photography, artists compel us to turn off the lights and look up to the night sky.

From the simmering layer of smog over our cities to light pollution blocking the starlight, it’s evident how humans are leaving their mark on the night sky. But some artists are fighting to bring it back.

“I have rather romantic feelings about the night sky. I view it as this immutable presence, this view that hasn’t changed since before man walked the earth,” says landscape photographer Ben Coffman. “It’s my connection to history. Sailors, explorers, and runaway slaves all navigated and were reassured by these same stars. They are literally the stuff of legend.”

Coffman explains that the ability to capture good nighttime photos has evolved with camera technology. His first digital SLR left too much noise in the dark images. But better tech in cameras means sharper images with better contrast. He now uses long exposures — up to 30 minutes — to create a photo that reduces light pollution from cities hundreds of miles away.

“The views I’m able to capture now are much better at conveying the awe I feel while looking at the night sky,” said Coffman. “I couldn’t have conveyed that sentiment as well with older technology.”

But what if you could return the luminous pinpoints of light to our cities? In his short film “Blackout City,” Nicholas Buer imagines a London where no light pollution exists.

“Blackout City attempts to make the invisible, visible, and its agenda is simple,” said Buer. “To try and inspire people to reconnect on some level with the night sky; to leave behind the city lights, to travel somewhere quiet on a star-filled night and simply look up.”

Buer shot London during the day and then processed the shots to look like night. He captured the night sky in the South of England, and utilized to be astronomically correct for London. Getting the day shots were trickier for Buer, waiting until the sun was obscured by clouds to find the flattest light possible.

But then came the hard part.

“I tried various post-production techniques such as keying the footage or creating track mattes, but after a lot of experimentation I found that the best results came from masking out each sky, each reflection, each foreground subject by hand,” Buer said. “It was a very time-consuming process.”


The loss of the starry night has not gone unnoticed. Every year, the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) holds Dark Sky Week, where people get a chance to see and celebrate the starlit expanse.

Mark Gee created the video “City Lights to Dark Skies” for event in 2014. It starts in the city of Wellington, but moves to the nearby New Zealand wilderness to show the grandeur of a night sky as it passes, sped up via time-lapse photography.

“As an astrophotographer, I’m passionate about protecting the night sky and environment from the effects of light pollution,” said Gee, who says his work is about much more than beautiful photography.

“The effects of light pollution can also be detrimental to our health and upset the balance of nature,” he said. “It would benefit everybody to stop and enjoy the simple activity of looking up at the night sky — I personally spend many nights doing just that, and I’m always in awe of just how small we are in the grand scheme of things. It certainly puts life into perspective!”

IDA, founded in 1988, states that light pollution hurts people by disrupting their sleep. It disturbs animal habitats and it makes astronomical study harder to achieve. And, of course, all of the extra light increases energy consumption.

Beyond all of the practical considerations of the effect of light pollution, inevitably it is the poetic act of staring deep into the dark sky that we most miss.

“There are few things in life that can instill a sense of awe and wonder like the night sky,” Buer said. “There is a quiet solitude when you are in a wild place under a canopy full of stars and there is nothing quite like gazing into the unfathomable depths of the universe.”


Kill Screen, based in Brooklyn, publishes a gaming culture news site and printed magazine. The New Yorker called Kill Screen “the McSweeney’s of interactive media” and TIME said the writing was so “polished that they might help convince doubters that games are worth taking seriously.”


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