Hello. I am Steven Christenson. I have enjoyed a few moments of fame for my photography of the night sky – in fact you may have seen me on KQED or ABC7 in the San Francisco Area. I have astronomer’s blood coursing through me with more than a touch of tech-geek mixed in. My passion is photography in the dark of night where distant glowing orbs of superheated gases are the literal stars of my images. Though I am an astro-photographer by definition of the word my goal is to capture the heavens and earth together using modest equipment: a digital SLR camera, a sturdy tripod, a wide angle lens, a timer, patience and a smidgen of digital know-how.
My endeavors make me a slave to the whims of terrestrial and celestial weather. I arrange my vacations around moon phases so I can make the most of clear skies and nearly moonless nights. My motto is “Have camera: will hike for photos” especially if that means conquering a mountain in the dark.
My favorite mountain is Mission Peak. It is conveniently located just a few miles from my day job in the South San Francisco Bay.
It is difficult to describe the away-from-it-all feeling I enjoy after a challenging hike to 2,517 feet at a pinnacle well above the Silicon Valley hustle. I fondly remember one pre-dawn hike where my upward assault of the mountain through a dense marine layer led me above the clouds which muffled the city lights. With the city lights vanquished the sky was so dark that the Milky Way shone as clearly as it ever can in this area. Sadly I didn’t stop to take a picture until sunrise!
And perhaps better still I leave the office and go straight to the trail head so I can labor to reach the summit in time to drink in the often spectacular sunset. As a bonus, I hike down as the stars are shining, and the fog rolls in.
The cities ringing the San Francisco Bay have a cheery glowing charm, but that cheery glow also blots out many stars. I employ a simple scheme to keep the unnatural glow manageable – I make short exposures and I take many of them. Each exposure is as little as 30 seconds when the sky is bright or as long as 8 minutes in a dark sky. Then I combine the exposures using a process called brightness stacking.
When combined, the images plot out the course of the stars or the moon through the minutes or hours of exposures.
Despite diligent planning I am often surprised by what the camera captures. No unaided human eye can clearly see the dazzling true colors of the stars: yellow, orange, red, bronze, gold, blue and white. And a human eye cannot make out detail in the inky darkness – but the camera can.
When the camera is pointed north the earth’s rotation causes the constellations of Ursa Major, Draco and Cassiopeia to appear to circle around Polaris, the North Star.
Knowing the flight of the stars helps me plan my shots. I study the terrain and trails to find locations where I can get an appealing foreground against a starry sky. My camera’s field of view is not always wide enough to capture everything, however, so I sometimes combine (stitch) an upper and a lower portion of a scene. While standing at Grand View Vista high in the White Mountains with my friend Harold Davis, the Milky Way stretched over our heads from horizon to horizon. It took 8 shots to capture it all.
Late one afternoon it was my goal to capture stars in the night sky above Big Sur. I lead a small cadre of night photographers from the Bay Area to Pfeiffer Beach where a large portal in the rock is the star attraction during the winter solstice.
The image I got there – which is a combination of 3 separate images to control the huge differences in light – won me the honor of Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, England. But I am just as thrilled with the images my camera captured after my award winning image. One of them features the moon and stars relentlessly heading west to dip below the Pacific.
Though I prefer to stay and enjoy the night sky sometimes park hours prevent me from remaining vigilant over my camera. My solution is to leave my camera unattended to work though the night for me while I sleep and return when the park reopens.
My night photography is not limited to the Bay Area. I have sought out the Bristlecone Pine forest on White Mountain – the third highest peak in California,
and Pinnacles National Park
I have traveled to Arizona and Hawaii and farther to capture iconic foregrounds and seldom seen views.
All for the purpose of seeing the world and the starry sky in a way that takes patience to appreciate. It saddens me that so few urban dwellers have ever seen the wonder of the Milky Way, or the natural fireworks of a meteor shower.
I am rapturously married to tricia, a woman who not only understands my passion but who actively supports me.
Wayne Freedman, of ABC 7 news called me “a man who turns darkness into light.” In fact I am a man seeking light in the darkness. It thrills me to find that light and share the wonder of it as best I can through my photos and in teaching and leading workshops and night sky adventurers.
So there you go, that’s who I am. Glad to meet you!