Islands of Darkness

Favian Mendez Rodriguez
May 6, 2022

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

– Carl Sagan

In 1994, around 4 a.m., a magnitude 6.7 earthquake knocked out the power in Los Angeles. Many residents went outside to check on each other and their homes. It was when they looked up at the sky, that they realized there were lights in the sky. Many calls came into 911 centers from nervous citizens claiming to see a large, sinister silver cloud in the sky. What they didn’t realize was that this cloud was the Milky Way. Most residents had spent their entire lives living in the illuminated city night; they had never seen the Milky Way and some had never even seen stars.

Light pollution has drowned out our view of the cosmos – a view that all our ancestors once shared. We might not consider the night sky as a resource but it is one that humans and most life on Earth have evolved with. Light pollution not only threatens our ability to learn about space but has been linked to disrupting wildlife and affecting our health.

On most nights, Lincoln’s city glow is enough to engulf the night sky and keep the cosmos hidden. Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez shot with iPhone 12 Pro Max, 1-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 1250

Many nocturnal animals depend on the cover of darkness. Different species depend on dark skies to initiate normal behaviors such as mating, migration patterns, foraging, and construction of their homes. Wetlands are some of our most vulnerable spaces and the glare from artificial lights interferes with many amphibians and insect populations’ breeding rituals such as frogs croaking and fireflies lights’. Light pollution has drastically caused a decline in their populations.

Birds and bats collide with illuminated buildings and structures or get trapped in cities’ infinite glow. Migratory birds such as the Sandhill Cranes depend on cues from properly timed seasonal schedules. Artificial lights can cause them to migrate too early or too late and miss ideal climate conditions for nesting, foraging, and mating.

We might think of plants as being diurnal, soaking up the rays of the sun for photosynthesis but in reality, they depend on the night sky just as much. Plants rely on the day and night cycle for flowering, plant budding, leaf dropping, moisture control, and other activities (Audubon, 2022).

And let’s not forget about the sea turtle. By now, most of us have seen Planet Earth 2 where the turtles mistakenly follow the light shining from street lights and buildings for the stars and moon reflecting off the ocean. Light pollution puts them at risk of mortality from fatigue, predation, dehydration, and collision with vehicles. Light pollution may also impact mother sea turtles as they attempt to nest.

Taken at 10:30 p.m., the city lights make it seem as if the sun has just set. Just a few stars make an appearance. Light pollution affects many of our local wetlands such as Marsh Wren and disrupts natural ecosystems.  Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez shot with iPhone 12 Pro Max, 30-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 1600

Humans depend on the night sky as well. The physiology of plants and animals (humans included) depend on a carefully timed circadian rhythm. A study from the American Medical Association (AMA) in 2014 concluded that exposure to artificial light at night may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, sleep disorders, obesity, and breast cancer (AMA, 2014).

Light pollution is hurting your wallet too. On average, we spend $3 billion per year, or $10 for every person in the U.S.A every year keeping lights on at night. The average household wastes about 0.5 kilowatts a night. One kilowatt could power a 50-inch plasma TV for one hour or could run a load in the dishwasher. And let’s not talk about the carbon emitted to power all the night lights. You would need to plant around 600 million trees a year to offset just the U.S.A’s carbon emissions (International Dark-Sky Association, 2021).

It is nearly impossible to see a decent amount of stars in a city. Taken right in the center of Lincoln, the only star visible is Arcturus, the fourth brightest star and 25 times larger than the sun. As cities go, Lincoln is tiny when compared to Denver or Los Angeles.  Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez shot with iPhone 12 Pro Max, 10-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 1200

Not everything is cast in a negative light! There are solutions to this problem. The simplest and most cost-effective solution is to simply turn off the lights. If that is not an option, motion sensors are one solution. For street lights and outdoor lighting, installing shielded lights reduces light pollution by almost 60%. To reduce the effect of light emitted from LEDs, installing warm light LED alternatives instead of blue-rich white light reduces health risks to both people and wildlife. Going to bed early and waking up to the sun instead of binge-watching your favorite series all night can be an option too!

Notice the building in the back. It has great light fixtures pointing the light down. As for the street light, it has its light scattering through the sky and creating a significant glare. Walk around your neighborhood and take a note of unshielded and shielded lights. Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. iPhone 12 Pro Max, 1-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 640

One of my favorite pastimes and hobbies is just looking up at the night sky and taking simple exposures from my smartphone. Nowadays, it is becoming more challenging for amateur astrophotographers to be able to take pictures of the Milky Way, Andromeda, and even the planets in our solar system. Despite this, it is still possible to capture the cosmos with just the camera in your pocket. You just have to find the elusive islands of darkness.

Finding these islands of darkness is not impossible. There are resources on the internet and social media that can help you out. My personal favorite is DarkSiteFinder at www.darksitefinder.com (no, not that dark site). This website helps you track down the islands of darkness scattered across the country that still have great views of the night sky.

As you can see, the Sandhills are your best bet to get a perfectly dark sky. If you live in eastern Nebraska, you have to travel a bit further west to get a good dark sky. Branched Oak is a good place to go if you can’t go too far from Lincoln.

There are also places certified as “dark sky’ designations. While Nebraska has no official dark sky designation “yet”, there are plenty of spots in the state that you can travel to. I personally think the best spot in Nebraska is the Sandhills. We can help contribute to Nebraska’s dark sky designation status by getting involved in local policies like city planning, housing developments, zoning, and contacting your representatives!

The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) is the recognized authority on light pollution and is the leading organization combating light pollution worldwide. They have a bunch of great resources for protecting our night skies! You can visit their website at www.darksky.org.

These islands of darkness are like forests being cut down or the many islands around the world being swallowed up by rising sea levels. They are shrinking by the night. The night sky is a finite resource that is quickly being drowned out by the ever-increasing bright and huge screens of the modern age. Together, we can save our dark skies and rediscover our ancient history with the cosmos.

Astrophotography does not require expensive cameras, telescopes, or advanced software knowledge like stacking and post-editing. Of course, having a dedicated camera and telescope with a computer-controlled tripod will always produce better results but you can still get some pretty amazing images with just the smartphone in your pocket

I have only been doing astrophotography for about two years, but I have been able to learn from trial and error and helpful tutorials on how to get amazing shots from just a few seconds of pointing your phone camera in the right direction. I hope these next few photos and tips can help inspire you and guide you through the night sky!

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. iPhone 12 Pro Max, 30-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 5000

Taken 10 miles from Lincoln in Conestoga Lake State Recreation Area, the outer arm of the Milky Way and Andromeda make an appearance. You can get some great shots on clear nights in winter so long as you wear layers and can bear the cold! I used my friend in the foreground to give the image more sense of grandeur. Adding objects into the foreground can help attach what is often so distant to oneself and bring it closer.

 

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. iPhone 11, 1-second exposure, f1/8, 26mm, ISO 4000

Image of Comet Neowise taken on July 16, 2020. My first ever attempt at astrophotography. Hand-held and with an older phone, this photo was taken in the Badlands National Park South Dakota just a few hours north of Chadron and Valentine. This was the night that I knew I wanted to take up astrophotography. I could see the comet with my own eyes and it was one of the most impactful moments of my life. This is not possible across the country. Light pollution has made this nearly impossible.

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. iPhone 12 Pro Max, 30-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 5000

Image of the Andromeda Galaxy and Pleiades star cluster. Taken at Branched Oak Observatory facing east towards Lincoln; the city lights penetrate behind the tree line. Planting trees on the perimeters of these spaces such as wetlands can help reduce the impact light pollution has. They are considering this at Marsh Wren. Once again, adding a foreground really adds a lot to the already vastness of space.

How good your image comes out depends on your subject’s relation to the city lights. If what you’re photographing is north of Lincoln and you find yourself on the south side, you’re going to get a hazy image. Your best bet is to plan where the object will be and set up on that side of the object as far as possible from city lights. At 20 miles from the city center, Branched Oak is a good distance away.

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. Nikon Z 6, 30-second exposure, ISO 6400, variable zoom

Image of the Andromeda Galaxy. It is the furthest object one can see with the unaided eye. In these images, I played around with the zoom to try to get a closer shot of Andromeda (Messier 31, or M31 for short). As you can tell, the max zoomed-in image has the most detail of M31, but it picks up star trails. Star trails happen due to the Earth’s rotation and long exposures capturing the movement. You can get rid of star trails by decreasing exposure time, using a computerized tripod, or stacking short exposure images. But for amateur astrophotography, this is fine and can sometimes add more flair to your shots when you got perfect circles, creating a crazy light show!

Pictured left is one of the telescopes at the Branched Oak Observatory (BOO) pointed at the Moon. iPhone 12 Pro Max, 10-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 800. Pictured right is an image from one of the many events BOO hosts annually. iPhone 12 Pro Max, 1-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 8000. Photos by Favian Mendez Rodriguez.

Anyone can take images of the night sky. All you need is to take your phone from your pocket. I have only personally used iPhones for this but Samsung and Google phones are actually better for astrophotography. The newest Samsungs have some of the best cameras available and Google phones have up to a 5-minute exposure! Each phone has different settings but they can all get the job done.

The most important part of astrophotography is not moving. You need to get a good exposure of 10 to 30 seconds. Any longer than that and you will get star trails. However, you can use that to your advantage as well to get a cool effect. A tripod makes it all the more convenient but if you don’t have one, a good rock, a sturdy fence post, or even your shoe works!

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. iPhone 12 Pro Max, 30-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 3000

Most phones 5 years old or newer should have a decent amount of manual control as default. The 3 main things to consider are having a stable position (your tripod), exposure (shoot for 10-30 seconds), and focusing on the stars themselves (just tap on your screen). A few more tips are turn off live photos and turn on RAW if possible. Consider what phase the moon is in. If it’s more than half full, it’s probably too bright. Try to get a subject in the foreground for a more interesting photo. That subject could be a car, a tree, a person, or a windmill.

Keep it simple and light. You will have to set up your kit every night you go out. A tripod is the only thing you truly need. Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez

Pictured above is all the gear I use. My UBeesize CT50 tripod cost me $15 off Amazon and is made specifically for smartphones. My headlamps come with 7 modes, including red light. Red light is very important for astrophotography as it helps preserve your eyes from re-adjusting every time you need to turn on the lights to see. I use the SkyView app to help me orientate myself and track celestial bodies. And a good chair.

Pictured left is a Blood Moon. iPhone 8, 1-second exposure, f1/8, 28mm, ISO 2500. Pictured right is Mars and its moon Phobos during their opposition. Opposition is when Earth finds itself between a celestial object and the Sun. Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. iPhone 8, 1-second exposure, f1/8, 28mm, ISO 3000

I occasionally take my telescope to look at the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, or Saturn. You don’t have to spend much on one. I got mine off the Facebook marketplace for $10 and can see Saturn’s rings. You can do fine with one under $300 and most come with a smartphone adapter to align the camera with or you can always buy an attachment off Amazon.

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. iPhone 12 Pro Max, 30-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm, ISO 5000

Writing down what settings to change on a note helps you remember which settings to change when your’re out there. This part took me the longest to get down. I mentioned a few tips earlier to help you get a good night shot. These are specific to iPhone but the idea is the same. New iPhone Pro models have Apple ProRaw. Turn that feature on in the settings and it will show up on the camera app. It takes a raw image so the file size is bigger but does not blend or compress the image which makes editing easier. You have to manually turn it on every time in the Camera app. Turn off HDR and scene detection. This helps reduce noise. All these changes are found in Camera in the Settings. However, the best setting is still a dark sky.

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. Nikon Z 6, 30-second exposure, f/4.5, 24.00mm, ISO 4000

Astrophotography has become more accessible than ever before. You don’t need a $5,000 camera and telescope setup to get amazing photos of the cosmos. Some say phones have become a great burden and distraction in our society. While that seems true at times, they can also bring us back to our roots. They can help us capture those special moments and share them with others. They open us to a million possibilities of new skills to develop and new hobbies to discover.

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. Nikon Z 6, 30-second exposure, f/4.5, 24.00mm, ISO 6400

Now, having a dedicated camera helps a ton. At Platte Basin Timelapse, I have used the Nikon Z6 on many occasions, including in astrophotography. At around $1,600, it is on the higher end of amateur photography but it proves itself in the results. Again, you don’t need a telescope attachment and star tracker for this. Just get a decent tripod and set that exposure up for 30 seconds and you’ll have yourself a stunning photo. Mess around with the settings a bit if you need to. In these image, the Milky Way really shows its colors under the Sandhills’ night sky.

Photo by Favian Mendez Rodriguez. iPhone 12 Pro Max, 30-second exposure, f1/6, 5.10mm camera, ISO 5000

The final piece of astrophotography comes in the edits. Now, don’t expect Hubble-quality photos (Hubble cost $10 billion and space has little pollution to deal with) but edits can really bring out the most in your images. I don’t like to go crazy with edits but I will typically bring up the exposure, tune the whites and blacks, and sharpen the image. Depending on the time of year, I will either increase or decrease the warmth. This image was taken in June. The summer night and the lights from Lincoln give this image its warm color. Image of the Milky Way and Jupiter and Saturn taken from Branched Oak Observatory.

I hope you find this story informational as well as inspirational. The universe is a vast place but through our shared love of the night sky, we can bring it closer to us. In order to do this, we must protect our night skies from further light pollution and ensure that every human has a chance to get lost in the cosmos’ beauty.

“If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”

– Carl Sagan

Special thanks to:

The Platte Basin Timelapse team

Branched Oak Observatory

Jamieson Battistella

Brittni McGuire

 

Citations

Franknoi, Andrew. (2007). Seeing in the dark. PBS. Retrieved March 4, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/seeinginthedark/astronomy-topics/light-pollution.html

Yiu, Yuan. (2021). To light or not to light our skies. Inside Science. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://www.insidescience.org/news/light-or-not-light-our-skies

Audubon Portland. (2020). Lights Out: The Impact of Light Pollution on Wildlife and Human Health. Portland Audubon. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://audubonportland.org/our-work/protect/habitat-and-wildlife/urban/reducing-wildlife-hazards/bird-safe-building/lights-out/

International Dark-Sky Association. (2017). Light pollution. IDA. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://www.darksky.org/light-pollution/

American Medical Association. (2016). AMA adopts guidance to reduce harm from high-intensity street lights. Press Releases. Retrieved from https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-adopts-guidance-reduce-harm-high-intensity-street-lights

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