Starry-eyed in the Digital Age

Stars from a moonless and little-polluted midnight sky shine over the distinctive buttes at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in southern Utah. © Kevin Moloney, 2009

There’s a spot I love to camp in Utah, on the edge of a red rock canyon miles from the nearest town. On a clear moonless night the stars are so rich that I can never sleep. I spend most of the night gazing at the curls and eddies of the Milky Way, smiling at passing satellites and listening to wind hiss off the wing feathers of diving swallows working the cliff-edge currents.

“I’ll find a deal on a clock drive,” I’d think to myself, wondering how I could photograph this amazing visual. I’d get the star-tracking device astronomers use to keep a far-off celestial object in their lens for longer than a few seconds.

Below a starry sky, light from the Glen Canyon Dam upriver glows from cliff faces on the Colorado River below the dam. © Kevin Moloney, 2010

Using film, or a digital camera only three years ago, it would have been necessary to expose for hours to get the detail I wanted. And without complex engineering the stars would all move and become the clichéd star trails in a camping photo. The clock drive would be a compromise too, as in relation the ground would move. Capturing both that sky and the canyons below it would be a daunting task.

Now camera manufacturers have reached astronomical heights in low-noise ISO, and making that photo is remarkably simple: A bright lens, ISO 1600 or so and maybe 30 seconds. In that time the stars don’t move much and the camera’s sensor seems to see into even the shadows of light cast through the atmosphere by a city a hundred miles off, or from the stars themselves. I just have to get back to that favorite spot under a new moon.

But it’s not just about stars and gimmicks. As the photographers of the last century must have felt when film reached ISO 100, “You can photograph anything now.”

ISO has become such a versatile and useful element in the equation of photography that I wish camera makers would promote the controls for it to the same level as shutter speed and aperture. I want to change it as often as I change those two.

For Harry- or Mary-DSLR-owner this means great cushion in getting that family moment onto Facebook. For a professional photojournalist, though, it is versatile power. Some of the world’s most disturbing, telling or satisfying moments happen after the sun is down, in only the smallest hints of light. What every storyteller wants are better tools with which to tell the full story.

This power was immediately put to use in the toughest places. Images of conflict and injustice in the night started appearing as fast as this generation of cameras appeared. Look, for example, at the work of Tyler Hicks and Michael Kamber. Also, while searching unsuccessfully for one image (possibly by Hicks or Kamber) I found the work of Michael Yon.

And in their latest edition, National Parks magazine filled their cover and several inside spreads with starry landscapes. The story was written by my colleague and sometime student Anne Minard.

Four-wheel-drive trucks pass the dune field of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve as the stars roll over on a moonlit night. With film like this, a beautiful, but different story. © Kevin Moloney, 2007

Another of the great gifts of digital photography is the perfect ability to correct color in white balance. This has been there since the first RAW files on my notoriously bad Nikon D1. (Give it a break. It was first out of the chute for truly usable digital cameras.) Film corrections took exposure-robbing filters that needed  a huge investment in time and money to reach commercial perfection.

These wonderful tools are certainly helpful to amateurs too, and lately a few colleagues have admitted being nervous about them in the hands of just anyone. I suppose in days of old it was as much the technical craft of photography that separated us pros from the great un-hypo-cleared masses as anything. Only we had the know-how to correct fluorescent lights and expose at ISO 3200. But what has separated us from just anyone with a camera is the ability to tell the story well and accurately.

It’s not the tools that do the job. It’s the experience of the photographer that does.

This is a beautiful age in our art. Not only do we have almost all the power of the film world still at hand, but we have the ever expanding power of the digital world at our fingertips.

This is my ode to the digital age. Never has our toolbox been so full.

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Thank you for being patient between posts as I teach, study and shoot. Summer is here!

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