Profiles in Mileage: Photographer of the Stars

Posted Jun 15th 2011 08:30 AMUpdated Jun 15th 2011 10:35 AM

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Adjusting the cameras in Colorado.

The United States glows in the dark.


As soon as the sun sets, bulbs flick on and the stars grow dimmer as light spreads to fill the night. Finding darkness takes careful planning, patience and, for Nick Risinger at least, a fueled-up station wagon.

Last year Risinger, a 28-year-old amateur astrophotographer, drove 15,000 miles around the American west in search of the pitchest blackness in order to capture the ultimate portrait of the heavens. With his father, Risinger criss-crossed the deserts of eastern Oregon, Arizona and Texas, seeking out light pollution free areas to get many of the 37,440 exposures he has now stitched together into a single massive image, his Photopic Sky Survey.

"I'd been to dark places before, but not the darkest places," Risinger told Aol Travel. "You have to hit these places at the right time, when they have dry air and no cloud, when there is a new moon. It takes a lot of planning"

Disney Aulani Hawaii
Nick Risinger


In order to find the right places to set up his six camera astrophotographer rig, which rotates in time with the earth in order to avoid blurring images, Risinger used a custom built application that laid a light pollution map of the U.S. over Google Maps, allowing him to see weather predictions and predict when the deserts would go dark.

Even with all this planning, Risinger struggled to find the conditions he needed, looking up to find himself under popular airline routes or discovering that certain areas were simply too far out of the way. He slept in his car, but was always tired.

"I had not realized how expansive the country really is," says Risinger, who listened to old Beatles records to pass the time as he drove by day down Route 93, the west's major North-South thoroughfare. "I got to see some amazing stuff, but I definitely wasn't the traditional tourist. I think I spent 45 minutes at Arches National Monument."

Risinger's favorite spot was an oasis in the desert Arizona, but he can't quite remember the name. The man has logged a lot of miles since quitting his job in marketing.

In order to photograph the entire Milky way Risinger had to travel to South Africa, where he set up on a ranch full of Springbok 4 hours northeast of Cape Town.

Disney Aulani Hawaii

Nick Risinger



"Seeing the sky from the Southern Hemisphere for the first time was amazing to me," says Risinger. "The Milky Way was suddenly straight overhead and I found the landscape beautiful too. At night we heard jackals."

Risinger is back in Seattle now, receiving some well-earned attention from the astrophotography community. Last week he saw his image projected in a planetarium for the first time.

"I think about South Africa a lot," he says, but he seems less than eager to plot his future travels. "I wouldn't have done this if it wasn't a personal passion. I aged 5 years in the last year."

Still, it was worth it.

"I wanted to capture the sky in a way that people hadn't seen. This project was about context, ours and the stars," says Risinger. "I think it worked."
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Donations to the Photopic Sky Survey can be made here.

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