Video: How To Take Amazing Photos In Outerspace

NASA astronaut Don Pettit discusses being the ISS’s resident photographer.

These days, we’re a bit spoiled when it comes to photographs taken in space, what with the dozens of satellites that give us instant access to images of our planet. But in a talk given at the recent Luminance conference in New York, NASA astronaut Don Pettit proves that there’s still no substitute for the human eye. Pettit, who has spent almost 400 days aboard the ISS, spends much of his time shooting photos of star trails, cities, the aurora, the goings-on at the station, and of course, a few of himself. Thanks to Swiss Miss’s Tina Roth Eisenberg, the video ran across our radar yesterday afternoon.


As you might expect, there are plenty of technical challenges with using earthling technology in space. For one thing, the speed at which the ISS travels (24,000 miles every 90 minutes) means that Pettit has only three to five seconds to capture a shot of a specific place. They keep their cameras–10 DSLRs–on at all times to avoid missing anything. Reflections are also a major issue, thanks to the four distinct panes that make up each window on the station. Pettit uses it to his advantage, though–his signature self-portrait is a shot of his reflection in the seven-window observation area. Capturing the broad range of light seen in the aurora, for example, is tough–but Pettit has devised a method that stacks several photos at different exposures together.

One thing that comes through from the video is how Pettit’s engineering brilliance has enabled his art. When NASA stopped using real film at the ISS, it stopped being able to take infrared photos. But Pettit convinced them to take apart one of the on-board cameras and remove the embedded IR filter. He also describes creating a hacked-together tracking device on a whim, made from an abandoned IMAX rig, a power drill, and a random bolt he found. The system, which he compares to barn door trackers used by long-exposure photographers to correct for the movement of the stars during a long shot, enabled him to do just the opposite: correct for the movement of Earth. The resulting photos captured cities at night in never-before-seen detail.

Watch the full video above–it really gets going around the 7-minute mark.

[H/t Swiss Miss]

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.