October 24, 2013
One of Petit's Star Trail images.
Dressed in a blue blazer and a constellation tie, Astronaut Donald Petit opens his keynote speech, as those who know him would expect, with a joke.
“An Astronaut’s Guide to Photography—I think that book would sell about six copies.”
He’s of course joking about the limited utility of what he’s about to talk about. Not many photographers will be going into space anytime soon. What he also knows is that for photographers, the concept of going to a “frontier” is a dream. It’s what drives young avid National Geographic readers to become photographers every year.
For those that haven’t checked out my profile on Petit, it’s worth a read over at PDNedu. Here’s the short version: Petit is an astronaut first and an avid photographer second. He has been working for NASA for the last 17 years and has been to the International Space Station twice, each time for 6 months. During his space stints, when he’s not doing his day job on the Space Station (astronauts work 7 A.M. To 7 P.M.), he ’s shooting with one of the twenty camera bodies that they have on site.
Petit’s keynote speech covered a multitude of topics, from how he created his popular “Star Trail” images to the difficulty of shooting in the cramped quarters of the space station. He even showed off a few never-before-seen time-lapse videos of his work, specifically of aurorae. If there was one theme to his talk, one would probably go with the struggle between shooting what you want to shoot and what other people want you to shoot. It’s a topic that any photographer could relate to.
“It’s the photographer’s dilemma,” says Petit. “Do you take pictures to please earth-centric people or do you take pictures to show the reality of the environment?”
By example, Petit shows two group photos of his crew. One shows the crew in a neat line like they are taking a family portrait. The other shows the crew ringing the frame, some upside down, some sideways. Which do you think is more realistic? Of course, the one with the upside-down and sideways people. His point is: that’s an image that most people on Earth don’t want to see. It doesn’t fit with their sensibilities. So how does he get around that?
“You can dodge that bullet by making ‘art,’” says Petit.
Among the highlights of the talk include an explanation of the particular difficulties of shooting in space. The most prominent were reflections (you are shooting through a window after all), difficult physical conditions, and the speed at which you are traveling (“If you have to fiddle with your camera, the shot is gone.”).
Another issue is galactic cosmic rays which, over time, destroy sensors. To fix that, Petit talks about shooting dark current images (shots with the lens cap on) or flat field images (white background at medium exposure) to use as a base to clean up the images that you shoot.
The difficulty of shooting in space is also the thrill, according to Petit. It’s a frontier environment. The normal rules don’t apply and you have to end up making your own.
Petit ends the talk again with a joke, and one relates to his frontier mentality. It’s a group image of his crew dressed in pirates costumes. Who says astronauts don’t know how to have fun?
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