The world (or universe) of astrophotography as seen by Kris David

Kris Smith captures out-of-this-world spectacles

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Scroll through Kris David’s Instagram and you’ll soon discover his pictures are something special. Starry skies that resemble magazine pictures emerge, and you can’t help but wonder “How did he capture that?!”

Kris’ journey to begin space photography didn’t begin until a few years ago. He grew up in Elkmont, Alabama. Kris attended Calhoun Community College and decided he wanted an opportunity to see the world and figure out his career, so in 2014 he left for the Air Force, stationed in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

While there, he pursued his love of astrophotography — a long word meaning specialized photography for recording photos of celestial events, astronomical objects, and areas of the night sky.

Kris was always interested in photography, keeping his interest tucked away in the back of his mind. But the hobby came to life when he witnessed the pitch-black nights of North Dakota.

“You have to know what you’re looking for.”

“I was riding around with some friends one night when we saw the sky lit up, so we stopped to take some pictures,” he said. “I used my phone camera and saw a small, green smudge in the sky.”

The smudge was the Northern Lights. Kris was definitely not in Alabama anymore. North Dakota is the prime location for astrophotography, as it isn’t close to as many cities, and the sky stays dark.

Kris explained that even the smallest influence of nearby light could affect the pictures.

“While taking photos of the night sky, any amount of light can show up during the three to four minutes of the shutter being open.”

While galaxy nebula photography is not possible for our region, planetary photography is.

“You can find something to do wherever you are,” he said. “Planetary photography is a possibility around here because planets are bright enough and allow more zoom.”

North Dakota was the idea spot for Kris to begin this hobby for several reasons besides the darkness of nighttime. First, the state is flat, with no trees or hills to obstruct the view. Second, there’s not much to do in North Dakota, so dedicating your time to capturing these images provides a fun way to spend your time. Finally, North Dakota experiences six-monthslong winters, many times reaching 30 or 35 below zero with a 70 below zero wind-chill.

“The U.S. is outside of the Milky Way, not centered,” Smith said. “In Winter, part of the sky you see at night is looking at the middle of the Milky Way. Winter is the prime time to see.”

 

Smith creates his images by taking several still shots (top) and layering to make a cosmic masterpiece (bottom). [KRIS SMITH PHOTOS]

Kris went on to explain that in the summertime, heat waves can even interfere with the quality of the photo.

“You know the heat waves you see bouncing off of the parking lot or a grill? Those same heat waves can interfere with the stillness needed for the photos, and ripples can show up in pictures in the summer. Winter creates more crisp pictures.”

The pictures shown on Kris’s Instagram were taken with wind temperatures about 15 below zero.

After being inspired by the night sky, Kris spent several months researching the best equipment to use and scouring the Internet for resources. Equipment can cost upwards of $5,000.

Smith said the process of capturing the images can be tedious and time-consuming, but the results are always worth it.

“It takes about two hours to set up and get leveled,” he said. “The telescope tracks the sky and counteracts the earth’s rotation. After a few seconds, the Earth’s rotation will start to smear the images, due to the curvature in the star trials where the rotation occurred. I use two cameras: one for imaging and one for guiding.”

The whole process gets pretty technical and involves a lot more than the average person could fathom. Kris takes about 30-100 pictures of the exact same view during a three- to four-minute exposure per photo. He uses a small telescope attached to a big telescope with a camera that actually captures video as well, in order to direct.

“Once you have the star in the program it tells the camera to stay precisely on the same star,” he said. “Without the program, the mount is completely blind and doesn’t know what to capture.

“It takes almost as long to process the images as it does to shoot them.”

Each picture you see of Smith’s is a combination of tens or hundreds of pictures stacked together. The software’s ability to stack differentiates between what is noise versus stars.

Kris has captured shots of Andromeda, the Northern Lights, blood moon and Orion/Running Man Nebula. Just glancing through his images, you realize the complexity captured and understand how complicated and technical the behind-the-scenes process is.

Smith’s advice to those interested in starting astrophotography is simple, and involves a lot of research and patience.

“You have to know what you’re looking for.”