Collage and illustrations by Maggie Thrash.

Collage and illustrations by Maggie Thrash. (Amber’s on the left, and Maggie’s on the right.)

Greetings precious earthlings! It’s Amber and Maggie from Planet Tech. We’ll be dropping in every month to discuss what’s going on in the world of technology—starting NOW! Each month we’ll have some regular features, like Explore, in which we delve into a new topic or gadget (today’s topic: astrophotography), and Movie of the Month, where we analyze a movie’s fictional technology (today’s movie: Ant-Man!). But before we lift off, we’d like to tell you about ourselves and our particular areas of interest:

AMBER: When I was a little kid, I was my household’s electronics whisperer—constantly amazing luddite family members with my seemingly innate ability to diagnose and fix what was wrong with DVD players, video game consoles, and Apple computer products. But I wasn’t the savant that my family thought I was. I simply knew basic troubleshooting strategies (when something electronic isn’t working, you turn it off and then back on, you check to see if all the cables are plugged in, you “Ctrl+Alt+Del” that muthasucka, et cetera). These days, I’m really focused on learning about basic tech repair—tricks and troubleshooting techniques that can be performed by people who don’t have any electrical engineering or computer programming knowledge. People like me. We’re so reliant on our phones and computers that it isn’t uncommon to have a full-blown meltdown when one of these things isn’t working properly. I’m interested in demystifying the tech that we use on a daily basis, because we should all be able to enjoy the personal electronic devices that we spend so much money on to the fullest, and not see them as a source of anxiety.

MAGGIE: I consider myself less of a tech expert and more of a tech evangelist. I’m not a fantastic coder; I’m not the best person to help you design your website or anything. But what I’m really interested in is tech philosophy, which is the study of whether the effects of technology are a net positive or a net negative for society. I’m obsessed with how technology can be both empowering and enslaving. You can choose your online communities; you can make your own computer. But increasingly, companies like Apple and Facebook try to get us dependent on their technology, to the point where very few people understand how any of this stuff works. And if you don’t understand how your phone works, are you really the one in control?

OK! Now, let’s…


exploreMAGGIE: Today we’re talking about amateur astrophotography with my stellar best friend Nico Carver. Astrophotography is the art and science of capturing images of celestial objects in the night sky. You’re probably thinking super-huge lenses in giant observatories—but I’m constantly amazed by the shots Nico is able to capture with a standard Canon DSLR camera.

The Milky Way over West Virginia, from Nico's Instagram.

The Milky Way over West Virginia, from Nico’s Instagram.

What do you like about photographing outer space? What makes it different from photographing stuff on Earth?

NICO CARVER: When you photograph space objects, you generally use a photographic technique called a “long exposure,” which means the camera takes in more light by leaving the shutter open for a long time. And this technique really makes the night sky come alive; you can see things you can’t see with the naked eye. As a photographer, that means that there is a lot of trial and error. Press the shutter, wait 20 seconds, see how it turned out, change a setting slightly, and repeat over and over until you find the sweet spot. I’m a pretty patient person, and I really like hobbies that require taking your time. After three years of playing around, I am definitely still an amateur, but I’ve gotten better. Compare my first attempt to something more recent.

What I also really like is that astrophotography will take you to some of the most wild places on Earth, because the key to getting good results is avoiding the light pollution of civilization.

What kind of gear do you need to do this?

This is the kind of hobby that can quickly get expensive. Cameras and camera gear are already a big part of my main hobby, which is filmmaking, so jumping into astrophotography wasn’t too much of a leap for me. All that being said, you can get started in astrophotography fairly affordably these days, especially if you are willing to sink some time in learning camera hacks online, like the Canon Hack Development Kit. For example, this photo was taken with a camera you can get for around $100 used on eBay and a DIY device made of LEGOs.

Another cheap way to get started is with a modified webcam, a telescope, and a laptop. To backtrack, I should say this is “cheap” if you already own or can find the telescope and the laptop for free. (In my experience, a lot of families have old telescopes in the basement or attic; they also crop up at garage sales.) Modifying a standard webcam to fit on a telescope is really great for photographing planets like Jupiter and Mars.

If you are really interested, and want to be able to do all kinds of different astrophotography shots, I would recommend a sturdy tripod (Manfrotto is a solid, good-quality brand, and there are tons of used ones on eBay), and a Canon DSLR like the T2i with a few good lenses. (You can find used T2is for anywhere between $100-ish and $500-ish, or maybe your school has a photo lab where you can borrow one!) A T2i can be used to photograph star trails, the moon, and even other galaxies.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever photographed?

Definitely the Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights, in Iceland in the middle of December. To my surprise, there were photographers from all over the world—China, Australia, the U.S., Japan—there taking pictures. It was my most productive night ever for astrophotography.

Aurora Borealis at Jökulsárlón, Iceland, from Nico's Flickr.

Aurora Borealis at Jökulsárlón, Iceland, from Nico’s Flickr.

Do you think aliens exist? What if they are out there photographing us?

There must be aliens. Here is a great interactive graphic that estimates how many alien civilizations are out there. It’s something I think about a lot when I am out all night with just the stars and my camera.