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Astrophotographers Capture the Night Sky

07/28/2020 10:15PM ● By Richard DuPertuis

Shoot for the Stars

By Richard DuPertuis
Photo by Josh Meier
August 2020

Gazing up at all those stars in a clear night’s sky brings different shades of enjoyment to different people. Some embrace the mystery without question, yielding to the unimaginable immensity of the cosmos and, in reflection, their own miniscule role in it. Others strive to understand it all, delving into reams of scientific literature for the newest answers to ancient queries, which they may be eager to share.

Astrophotographers can carry either or both of these traits, but their focus on the stars is literal, achieved through the lens of a manually adjustable camera. And while their motivation may be rooted in awe, their quest for knowledge needed to increase the odds of capturing a sharp image, what sets them apart is their willingness to spend the money and the time required to do nothing less than bring home the sky.

Redding photographer Josh Meier knows what it’s like to spend long hours outdoors at night, his camera mounted on a tripod to allow for the long exposures necessary for shooting in the dark. “At home I’ll use a star tracker. That’s a motorized tripod head that moves with the stars,” he says. “Without it, the stars will make streaks.”

The founder of Josh Meier Photography, he exhibits and sells prints of starscapes, usually framed with some scenic foreground, sometimes contributed to this magazine. “I started about five years ago shooting landscapes,” he recalls. “My favorites were sunsets and mountains. I loved it.” 

He sees astrophotography as a logical extension to landscapes, first shooting a night sky during a family camping trip a few years ago. “I took a couple that were like, ‘wow!’ I was really into it from that point.”

Once bitten by the starry shutterbug, Meier set out to learn all he could. “I was on YouTube for hours and hours watching Milky Way Mike,” he says with a laugh. “I learned how to work with two-minute exposures. I learned how to use my cell phone to add light to the foreground.”

Eventually, he taught himself. “It was near the 4th of July. I was shooting a beach scene,” he says. “The foreground was just sand, so I added a little something.” He pulled a slow-burning wick off a firecracker, lit just the wick, and tossed it on the beach framed in his viewfinder.

“The wind moved it around during a long exposure,” he explains. “It made a fire effect in the foreground. I posted it on my Facebook page, and people were asking, ‘How did you do that?’ That was like wow, I might actually be able to teach someone else something.”

Ryan Thompson, another Redding photographer, was also visited by the idea of teaching astrophotography when he was contacted by a guide service company owner offering a collaboration. Teaming with Marcus Duvoisin, founder of Ooowee Adventures, Thompson led his first class of about a dozen students on an early summer night hike high up the trail on Castle Crags.

“We called it the Sunset Photography Wine Hike,” says Thompson. “We stopped for wine and snacks along the way, and I gave lessons, so when we got to the top, everyone would know what to do.” He says they arrived at the top at 9:30 pm, shot for an hour and returned to the parking lot a little after midnight.

Thompson says there will be more astrophotography classes on Castle Crags in the future, perhaps even one overnight. Classes are donation based, with no one turned away for lack of funds.

As did Meier, Thompson learned to love the stars through his outdoors-loving parents. “Astro was my favorite avenue for photography,” he says. “The camera can pull out all kinds of detail not visible to the naked eye, all those colors – it’s beautiful.”

It’s the detail visible to the naked eye that first interests Greg Williams, president of the Shasta Astronomy Club. And he can tell you in great detail from whence that detail comes.

“When you see a star, you are seeing light that has been traveling for millions of years,” he says. “It hasn’t stopped its journey until it hits your eye. That photon of light, born in that star, is absorbed if it hits anything in space. That it doesn’t, to me, is a miracle.”

When Williams isn’t promoting his astronomy club, he’s educating folks on the local wildfire ecosystem on behalf of the Fire Interpretive Department of the National Park Service. When he’s not doing that, he’s a public speaker at Schreder Planetarium. One thing he doesn’t do, though, is astrophotography.

“Oh, I dabbled in it, strapped a camera onto a telescope with a clock drive,” he says. “With a 20-second exposure, you can get some fantastic shots – even with a cell phone. But you can’t do that kind of photography on the fly.”

So when the club hosts its monthly star parties, they emphasize telescopes over cameras. “Our primary purpose is social. We gather with friends for optical observing. And we do invite the public,” Williams says, then adds, “Come on out and learn something. I can talk about stars for hours.”

However, the club president does honor those who like to aim their cameras at the night sky. “I know they are able to collect more photons than we can see,” he says. “I can show them the stars. I can talk about the physics of astronomy. But they can show me the physical universe.”•

Josh Meier Photography • Find him on Facebook

Ryan Thompson • (530) 524-9417 •

Ooowee Adventures • (530) 945-6577 •

Shasta Astronomy Club • • Find them on Facebook