My Search for Last Stars

Varun

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In 2011, a few days after I bought my first and only DSLR, I was quickly running out of subjects to shoot. I had shot the garbage filled lake behind my house and the few birds that come to visit it. I had shot the trees and the crows that inhabit so many times that I had lost count. Lying down stewing in the oppressive humidity that only Chennai’s summer could offer I was rummaging through my head, trying to find a new subject to test the new camera’s capabilities. Then it struck me. What grander model can I get to pose for my camera than the night sky itself? And with that thought I took my camera and the tripod that came with it to shoot the night sky.

What comes to your mind when you think of the night sky? The full moon in all its glory? Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry night? A starlit sky? When was the last time you went out and looked at the night sky?

After multiple shots at varying exposures, and with every photo growing frustrated with what I was getting on my camera. I set the camera to the maximum exposure setting it had, 30 seconds and clicked the shutter button. The camera opened its shutter, the screen went dark and the sensor started capturing all the photons of light that came its way for the next thirty seconds. This is the image that I was staring at after the camera closed it shutter and finished processing what it had captured for the last thirty seconds.

It was only then did I look up and see the sky instead of giving it just a cursory glance.

Two questions popped in my mind with what I was seeing. Firstly, “Why is the sky orange?”. Secondly “Where are all the stars?”. The first question got answered when I turned around and saw the streetlights lining the road. Shining bright and orange, the sodium vapour lamps seemed to be everywhere, and were painting the sky a garish shade of orange.

Dejected at not getting the shots I thought I’d have; I went back in and did some research and found out that the stars’ light were overpowered by the very sodium vapor lamps that were painting the sky orange. On further research I found a site which gave a visual representation of the amount of light radiated into the sky across the globe. And this is what I found.

The map is of South India and any place which isn’t black has some amount of light radiating into the sky, with red being the places with the most light. The areas marked green, had some light pollution but was still a problem to get a good shot from.

A few months later in 2012, I was at my grandma’s place for a family occasion, and as is the norm during these get togethers, me and my cousins were lying down outside the house at night, as there were way too many people to be accommodated inside. Tamil Nadu was going through a severe power crisis during that time and power cuts were an everyday occurrence. While the power cuts were scheduled in the urban centres, they were very frequent and unscheduled in the rural areas. And luckily one of these unscheduled power cuts happened during that night, and the power cut brought an instant change in the sky we were looking at in the cold January night. I was for the first time in my life, taking in the sight of an unpolluted(almost) night sky.

While staring awestruck at the sky, I noticed a small streak of silver running across the sky, which I happened to dismiss as a jet stream at first, and then it struck me. What I was looking at wasn’t a jet stream, but I was in fact looking at our galaxy, The Milky Way. While researching about the night sky in search of the perfect photo I had also stumbled upon the information that the Milky Way is visible from earth to the naked eye if the sky is clear, there is no moon in the sky and you are in a dark enough place. That was my first and till this date remains, sadly, my only live sighting of our galaxy.

Fast forward a year and a half in 2013, during my second year of college, where I was studying Game Development, I had somehow been made one of the two administrators of the college photography club called “Shooterz”, which was the seed for a Photography department to be launched in the college a couple of years later. Through that club I was enrolled into a competition called “International Photocross”, as part of a team of three people, which was a competition held across a few countries by a Russian college. We were given ten topics and two days to get a photo for each of the topic. One receiving the topics, we split the topics amongst ourselves and went to get out photos. One of the topics for that year was “Space Near Us”, and I knew exactly what I wanted to shoot for that topic.

I packed my kit, and went to my grandma’s place, a drive of around 200 kilometres. I arrived there in the evening and waited for night to fall and another unscheduled power cut to occur. Although night fell, the power cut never arrived. A few hours of waiting, and I needed to get back to Chennai for the next day. So, I went to the darkest spot I could find turned my camera at the sky and started clicking one uninspiring photo after another. Lady luck was not kind that night, I couldn’t land a single picture where I could even see a glimmer of the Milky Way on the display of the camera. Giving up hope I pointed the camera in the general direction of my grandma’s house, which was a few kilometres away from where I was shooting and started shooting photos.

Out of sheer luck the angle I was making placed the town of Neyveli in my shot. Neyveli for those who don’t know is the location of a state-owned thermal power generation station. And while it was busy generating electricity, the premises were lit up for the night shift to work, and it happened to be glowing against the night sky. While it was partially responsible for hiding most of the stars and the milky way from sight that night, the shot I had captured, with a few stars rising above the orange glow of a busy town, with streaks of light at the bottom provided by vehicles travelling along a highway, proved enough to be adjudged best in category.

I have barely touched my camera after finishing college, hardly finding time for it, this photo has remained the best photo of a night sky I have taken. My search for a place from which I can click a picture of the stars lighting up the sky with the milky way in the backdrop continues to remain in my bucket list.