POTD: Seeing stars

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The Milky Way Galaxy

I posted this image on the site’s Facebook page yesterday and received both a record number of likes, shares and responses/ questions – some doubting the authenticity of the image – so I thought it’d be a good candidate for reviving POTD.

Here’s the backstory: the image was shot out of an airplane window at 32,000 feet while returning from the USA tour; my wife was in the window seat and idly wondered if she could see stars, after the crew turned off the cabin lights for the night to encourage passengers to sleep (I suppose to theoretically help them get over jetlag). She stared for a while, acclimatising her night vision, and said there were quite a surprising number. I finished editing the batch I was working on, and joined her at the window. I could actually make out a very faint band of something running through the middle; I thought it might make an interesting photography experiment.

My previous attempts at astrophotography have been both severely limited and countable on the fingers of one hand; I had a feeling this one might be special. I picked up the Nikon Coolpix A, set it to manual and a 15s exposure, chose ISO 800 and f2.8 and gave it a shot, bracing the camera against the window. No dice: too faint, and too shaky, and worse, there were internal reflections from both the second window layer and some of the few ambient lights left in the cabin.

I tried again, this time using my black sweater as a dark cloth and light baffle against the window, drawing down the window shade as far as it would go, and bracing the camera against the sill. After experimenting with a few combinations and having several attempts (including a 100s bulb exposure) ruined by turbulence, this image was the best of the lot – 30s at ISO 1600 f2.8. It’s not perfectly sharp at 100% as airplanes vibrate and transmit these vibrations through their windows; in hindsight, I should probably have used the OM-D and 12/2 I was also carrying (the camera’s excellent stabilizer might have been able to compensate for some of the airplane’s vibrations/ motion), but nevertheless I’m still pretty pleased by how this turned out – and moreover by just how clean the long exposures from the Coolpix A were, even at high ISO. There’s little noise overall and no banding, amp noise or hot pixels, despite turning long exposure noise reduction off. MT

Clicking through the image on Flickr will give you full EXIF data.

The Nikon Coolpix A is available here from B&H or Amazon.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Every time I see this image I think “Always take a shot. You never know”. And with digital why not!

    Great shot!

  2. hi
    can you explain some more on this shot. i know you braced the cam as best you can. but for these objections millions and millions of KMs away…. wouldnt a fraction of a fraction of an angular displacement throw the picture completely off? also, how much does this final pic deviate from a SOOC image? would you post that? (im trying to see what i can get out from an apparently-underwhelming RAW viewed with standard profile)

    • A fraction of angular displacement, a crap window…all of those things can and do throw the image off. You only notice it if the angular displacement is greater than the distance one pixel subtends.

      There are no SOOC images. I shoot raw all the time.

  3. Reblogged this on Jeannette Walls and commented:
    Look at Venus!!

  4. Bob Moore says:

    You are in good company….



  5. This is pretty amazing. Glad you experimented enough to get the shot. MacGyver could not have done better.

    I wanted to check out the Nikon at B&H but they closed early the day I was there. Possibly a good thing now that the new GR is on the horizon. The GRDIV is possibly the only camera I’ve really bonded with but I find the low light performance lacking. I tried the Panny LX7 but it’s just not “transparent” enough. I’m always wrestling with it to get it to do what I want somehow. (I will say though that the LX7’s distance and DOF scale should be standard on every camera like this. The RX100, for instance, would’ve been much better with a DOF scale.) I just want a small camera that doesn’t get in the way. So far only the GRDIV fits the bill for me.

    • I couldn’t have done it without my fleece sweater!

      I’m going to try to get the GRD V to shoot head to head against the Nikon; I don’t know which one I’ll keep, but it will have to be one of them. Put it this way: even if I’d already paid for the Nikon, I wouldn’t have any regrets. The image quality (especially the lens) just floors me every time I open a file. As for the GRD V, like all of the other digital Ricohs, I’d expect it to be extremely configurable, and equally workable in either MF+scale focus mode, or AF mode.

  6. Wow, excellent shot Ming ! I wouldn’t even think at trying a 30s exposure shot, hand held from a plane ! Very well done !

  7. Looks like I can’t be witty and say, “you haven’t done astrophotography before” again. I somehow feel, I had a hand in this… 😛

    • Subconsciously, probably. Either that or it was just my usual pathalogical compulsion to photograph everything.

      • Haha, can’t argue with you there. I can’t believe how compulsive you are. I wouldn’t doubt you would have withdrawals if cameras where to just disappear one day.

        • I’d make one with my bare hands. From a tissue box with a pinhole or magnifying glass and something light-sensitive. Or hell, a patch of grass and an enormous tent made up as a camera obscura. Hmm, now I’ve got ideas…

  8. Rather impressive performance of your professional grade image stabilizer, aka “autopilot.”

  9. Amazing result, Ming!

    Last year we tried doing this on safari and it was hard enough out in the middle of the bush using manual focus and the rock steady earth for support. This was my result: http://www.photographers.travel/blog/wp-content/gallery/nikongear-com_2012/dal_1233_web.jpg

    • I wish I’d had a tripod or some sort of stabilizer. I bet yours is sharp at 100%, I’ve got a lot of extra stars thanks to the airplane bouncing around 🙂

  10. gabrybabelle says:

    Wonderful Shot Ming ,soooo cool 🙂

  11. Tim Fisher says:

    A couple o’ thoughts: you can of course see this and much more from mamy, many loactions on the earth, somewhat rendering your Flickr (I saw no link to a Facebook page) comments incorrect and secondly, they draw the curtains as it’s night time, nothing to do with jet lag or the body’s circadian rhythms.

    • I didn’t say you could only see this from a plane, I said I did. There’s a difference. Airplane operations follow local time – the side consequence is that it does help you to adapt to the new timezone faster.

  12. 30 sec@f/2.8 and ISO1600 has become my standard exposure for dark night skies. The quality of the image depends just as much on the overall darkness (it’s got to be really dark to see the milky way). Here is an example: http://photo.bdimitrov.de/galleries/Namibia2012/ (last image of the lot).

  13. Paul Stokes says:

    Excellent shot Ming. One pleasure to be gained from air travel.

  14. One good thing about moving to New Zealand was the stars here. Apart from getting a different view to the northern hemisphere, the dark skies and clear air makes for some stunning skies. Even where I live, in a town with streetlights, etc, I can still see not only the Milky Way, running right across the top of the sky at the moment, but also the large and small Magellanic Clouds( 75000 and 200000 light years away – the nearest galaxies to us). And when you go out into the dark countryside the views are something else.

    • That sounds awesome. So have you done much astrophotography?

      • Tim Fisher says:

        As the post says, dark skies revel all this and more (negating the need for 35,000ft) , though it was stated that they live in NZ, so I need to clarify what “from getting a different view to the northern hemisphere” means: they can not, nor will ever see the northern skies from the southern hemisphere in NZ, they enjoy the southern skies at night, which is, to my mind, a “lesser sky “(personally) having just spent 7 months there.

        I do so like Polaris, helps me navigate with little effort too!

        • Tom Liles says:

          I need to clarify what “from getting a different view to the northern hemisphere” means

          Maybe read the first line of the post [and infer the rest]?

        • Interesting, in what way is it a “lesser sky”? Having been staying only in the equator and the southern hemisphere, I’m not too sure the look of the northern sky, though from what I can see the view is pretty impressive. But only in the southern hemisphere will you get the most of the Milky Way.

  15. Tom Liles says:

    To think the nearest one of those [which we won’t see here] is 42 million million kilometers away…

    I don’t know what’s more impressive, that or the fact that we know it.

    [Never mind the impressive [informational] route between photons leaving one and them being emitted from an LCD display and hitting my retina. Mind blowing.]

  16. lovely! I had to move my head very close to nick-pick the imperfections you admitted to. Regardless, the picture is simply enjoyable to look at.

  17. I guess my question of what Ming Thein is going to conquer next is answered by this post. Astrophotography?! 🙂

    Great shot, Ming. I guess you’ve decided to keep the A, huh? The only thing stopping me from getting the coolpix is the pending release of GR V soon. The form factor of the original GR1 with 28mm plus the APS-C sensor with rumored improvements over the A is just too enticing!

    • Unless the GR V is much faster to focus, I think so. The image quality from this camera is nothing short of amazing. And the lens is very, very well designed indeed.

  18. Wonderful Shot Ming! Awesome that Nadiah could join you on the trip!


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