One of my favourite pastimes on the ISS – not that I have much free time – is night photography. Our planet looks fabulous when the ISS flies over the night-side of the Earth. It looks probably even better than it does during daytime. Lightning, oil-field fires, the aurora are always visible as well as the extremely bright lights used by fishing boats and of course the cities, villages and roads that all light up in a golden glow. You can see differences in the lights used in countries such as the well-illuminated Belgium and the Netherlands. The black blanket speckled with gold is a beautiful and magical sight. However in many places, as in The Netherlands for example, the lights are synonymous with light pollution. On Earth it is almost impossible to admire the stars due to all the light shining up into the night sky.
The Netherlands is particularly noticeable because of the brightly lit greenhouses in the West. They are immediately recognizable. Close to the greenhouses is the sparsely lit Zeeland area. Taking pictures of contrasting light and dark areas is quite difficult. We have professional cameras here on the ISS. We have three Nikon D3s cameras with many different lenses: 24, 28, 50, 85 and 180 mms. It takes some practice to be able to use them well. The shutter speed, aperture and ISO values need to be chosen very precisely. The D3s is very sensitive to light, you can set it to ISO 12.800, but then the image becomes grainy. The window is also a factor to reckon with. The 180mm lens is of little use in the Cupola due to the protective plates in front of the windows. It is impossible to focus fully on the Earth due to the protective plates.
Taking photos in three steps
So I go to the Russian service module with the camera. I have to time this to when we are flying over the right area. It must not be too cloudy and I need to be able to leave my work. Step 1. Recognise the area quickly (not easy, we look out of the Cupola upside down and it is dark so I cannot look up where we are in an atlas). Step 2. Stabilise myself (we are floating up here after all). Step 3. Aim, follow the Earth with a steady hand (we are moving fast) and shoot. Before long we fly past the area that I wanted to photograph and I will not have another chance for a few days.
I sent two of my photos to the NOS television news agency and other photos have made it to the newspapers. During the weather forecast in the Netherlands they always show pictures from viewers around the country. I thought it would be fun if they would show a picture of the country itself, the Netherlands from space, by night. I took pictures of the centre of the Netherlands with different lenses. I also took pictures of Friesland, because ‘Elfstedentocht-fever’ had started (a tour of eleven Dutch villages on ice-skates). I follow the news via the NOS, although I receive it with a few days delay. I thought it would be a nice idea to capture the eleven cities in one image. I hope to take many more pictures at night. I will keep sending you the best ones through Twitter.