Tales from a budding night sky photographer

Posted by Korey Haynes
on Monday, May 11, 2015

The summer triangle portion of the Milky Way begins to rise during the early morning hours on March 9, 2014. (ISO 800, 15-second exposure). // All images taken with a Canon 6D DSLR, 24mm, f/1.4, by Josh Thum
Please welcome guest blogger Josh Thum. I had the pleasure of meeting Josh at a Yerkes Observatory star party a few weeks ago and was hugely impressed by the night sky photos he showed me, especially for someone still in high school. I thought you might like to hear his story and enjoy his work as well:
The core of the Milky Way rises above the treetops as light emanates from the nearby town of Minocqua on the horizon. (ISO 1600, 20-second exposure)

My fascination with science began around fifth grade. At first, I took particular interest in marine biology and meteorology. As I matured, I strayed from these topics and eventually landed in astronomy. In seventh grade, my mom took note of my interest and looked into events at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Luckily for me, they had a high school program that they accepted me into in eighth grade. I began to use telescopes remotely via software provided by my mentor at Yerkes, Vivian Hoette. Some of my early images were taken at the Stone Edge Observatory in Sonoma, California. These images later won me an award that came with a DSLR camera. After months of using telescopes, I became interested in landscape photography, specifically using my DSLR at night. I rented Adobe Lightroom 5, and practiced editing images that other people took. By the time I got my Canon 6D around September of 2013, I was all ready to go with nighttime photography. The first dark sky I imaged at was at Yerkes Observatory.

This picture is part of a time-lapse Josh took before his camera broke. The core of the Milky Way floats over a windy Plum Lake. (ISO 1600, 20-second exposure)

But Yerkes was not my first introduction to beautiful night skies. My dad had regularly brought me and my family up to a place in the Minocqua area of northern Wisconsin —  a small town named Sayner, specifically. I always remembered how breathtaking the sky was there, and despite many visits, I was still amazed each time. My next trip was a few weeks after my Yerkes shot, during spring break. This was my first time with a camera in Sayner, and on the first morning I got lucky with the weather. The clouds cleared to make space for the rising Milky Way.

In the one image Josh's broken camera took, the Milky Way core reflects perfectly over the calm, serene water of Plum Lake on this mild July night. (ISO 1600, 20-second exposure)

As the months went by and my experience increased, so did my picture quality. While working at Yerkes Observatory and taking part in numerous events there, I got out whenever possible to take night shots. Something about sharing the night sky we have here on Earth with those less aware fuels me to keep taking pictures. Then, over the week of July Fourth, good and bad things happened. My dad, sister, and I travel every year to a place called the Woodlands Resort on Plum Lake in Sayner. Here, the sky is awe-inspiring. I got the most amazing images and time-lapses out of the one night I had with my camera. But on the second night, disaster struck — my camera mysteriously broke. The screen no longer turned on and a shutter failure message was displayed.

A firework is set off under the Cygnus portion of our Milky Way. (ISO 1600, 25-second exposure)

The next image shared here is one that I took while my camera was broken. I was so disappointed that each night I went out and attempted to take pictures. I have hundreds of dark images since my camera shutter didn’t fire, but one picture must have been meant to be. On July 2, about an hour after sunset, my camera took one image of the Milky Way reflecting over Plum Lake.

Strangely enough, my camera seemed to repair itself after that trip. The screen remained nonfunctional, but it was able to take pictures, and that’s all that mattered to me. I continued to use a broken camera with no screen for months after that. I took numerous time-lapses and images and shared them with many people. In August, I visited Sayner one last time. Outside our cabin, we set off fireworks under the dark and clear night sky. I took many pictures of these fireworks, as I’d never seen any images of fireworks with a night sky in the background. This one picture details each aspect of a firework.

In December 2013, my dad had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He fought hard, and he did everything he could for me. In March of 2015, he ordered me a new camera and told me to pursue my talents and keep going with what I have. On April 1, he passed away peacefully. He helped me get to where I am now however he could.

Each picture shared here was taken when I was 14 years old. I am completely self-taught, and I think I would be a great example for anybody who wishes to accomplish things at a younger age than usual. I’m still snapping pictures whenever possible just to share them with family and the public.

Check out Josh’s Facebook or Flickr pages for more of his awesome photography.

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