Sunday Sensational Science

Celestial Photography

Summer Milky Way above Yavapai Point Trail in Grand Canyon. Wally Pacholka/

Nothing chock-full of scientific facts this week, but plenty of beauty. Whilst I was on vacation, I came across the photography of Wally Pacholka in various visitors’ centers. What’s remarkable about his photography is that it isn’t contrived:

Pacholka said he employs simple techniques and does nothing extraordinary to get his shots. He uses a standard 50mm lens mounted on a tripod, and points a small flashlight on nearby desirable rocks and other land features he wants to stand out in the photo.

He allowed that his digital camera has a light-gathering power that is in some instances more than 50,000 times greater than a typical daylight camera setting. Pacholka runs his exposures anywhere from a few seconds to a minute. But he doesn’t consider himself a guru.

“This is something the average person could do, absolutely,” he said.

Well, if the average person was willing to hike remote trails in the dark and had an eye for the right moment, I suppose. And believe me when I say that hiking around Sunset Crater even in broad daylight is a perilous proposition. Jagged lava flows, slippery cinders, unexpected Ponderosa pine roots – the average person’s more likely to end up with a broken neck than a spectacular photo.

Sunset Crater Volcano – Milky Way & Jupiter. Wally Pacholka/

Images like these remind us just how gorgeous our universe is. We’re damned lucky to live on a planet where such vistas paint the night sky. And with a little wisdom in our lighting choices, we can protect those skies, allowing ordinary people to point an ordinary digital camera and capture some really astounding astronomy.

Gemini Twins – Orion – Sirius – Meteor over Windows Area. Wally Pacholka/

Both astronomy and photography take us to other worlds – one a little more literally than the other. I think this picture captures the other-worldly quality perfectly. Little hard to believe this was taken at the Valley of Fire on Earth, isn’t it?

Mars at Closest Point. Wally Pacholka/

And there are few things as other-worldly as a comet soaring over Joshua trees, which look a little alien to begin with:

Comet Hale Bopp over Joshua Tree. Wally Pacholka/

Wally’s work gave me a new appreciation for my home state, where cosmos and continent always seemed close enough to touch each other. The first two photos in this post will be gracing my home just as soon as I’ve identified a suitable wall. Next time you’re in a national park, have a look inside the visitor’s center – his work may be there, and you can take a little something special home with you. If you love sensational science, here’s a photographer who captures its essence perfectly.

Mauna Kea view of Milky Way from Northern Cross to Southern Cross Panorama. Wally Pacholka/

(All photos filched from Wally’s website, except the first one, which I pilfered from TWAN. You’ll find plenty of other sensational science photographers there, too.)
Sunday Sensational Science

2 thoughts on “Sunday Sensational Science

  1. 1

    He's right; at least from the technical perspective, this is something anyone can do. A 50,000x increase in exposure sounds like he's using some kind of super-exotic equipment, but it's well within range of most digital SLR cameras. Or most old-fashioned film cameras, for that matter. In fact, in some ways film is a better medium for this kind of photography.Start with a daylight setting for ISO 200; 1/250 second at f. 16. Increasing the exposure time to 1 minute is about a 16,000x increase in light gathering. Open the lens from f.16 to f.8 and you multiply that four more times.He probably does have a high-end dSLR, though, one chosen for low noise and excellent noise canceling. He might also have something above that, like a digital view camera. I wish there were a 'tech' section on his website.Another famous Adams' moon picture is "Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico". He was driving along the dusty road, saw the image to one side and slammed on the brakes, nearly wrecking the car. He jumped out, calling for his tripod, set up quickly and composed the scene. Damn! His spot meter was not at hand! The Earth was rotating and he had only seconds to make the exposure; what to do?He knew the luminance of the moon, though; 250 foot-candles. This he placed on Zone VII, set the lens, pulled the slide, and made the exposure."Realizing as I released the shutter that I had an unusual photograph which deserved a duplicate negative, I swiftly reversed the film holder, but as I pulled darkslide the [setting] sun passed from the white crosses. I was a few seconds too late! The lone negative suddenly became precious…"(From Examples; The Making Of Forty Photographs, which is a wonderful read. As is his autobiography. And nearly everything else he ever wrote.)Developing the negative then became a deep technical challenge, and the result was difficult to print.I can well understand Pacholka wanting to go alone; nighttime photography requires an almost Zen-like calm.

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