Do you want to photograph from space? Thomas Pesquet explains how to do it

Lunar, but literally. This is how we could describe the atmosphere that prevailed on Friday 7 October 2022 during the conference 3 appearances, 1 single planet organized by Nikon at the Salon de la Photo. After three earthly revolutions around its star, the event made its grand comeback in a new location, in the Grande Halle de la Villette, not far from the Cité des sciences. For the occasion, the producer wanted to cross the eyes of three monsters of photography around the same theme: our planet.

To represent the world’s oceans, Nikon appealed to Laurent Ballesta, nature photographer, diver and marine biologist. For the floor of the cows, Vincent Munier, animal photographer and director, has just been awarded a César for his documentary The snow panther. And to take a little (a lot) height, Thomas Pesquet, astronaut from ESA (European Space Agency) and now space photographer, since he has largely documented his stays on board the ISS (International Space Station) by delighting us with very beautiful pictures of our planet. Recordings that you will find in his book Earth in our hands from 2 November.

The undisputed star of the conference, Thomas Pesquet took the opportunity to tell how his journeys in weightlessness led him to draw his case and discover the teenage art of aerial photography, with a question in between: how do you take pictures in these conditions?

ONE “Sunday Photographer”

Always very humble, the astronaut began the short interview arranged just before the conference by declaring: “I am a Sunday photographer, unlike my two colleagues, but I had a magnificent view which I tried to transcribe.” He explains that he doesn’t really have a photographic culture, apart from a few big names and especially his father, a math teacher, who was dedicated to film photography. “at the time”. He admits, however, that he was inspired by the work of his American colleague Don Pettit, whom he describes as “mad scientist of photography”.

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Thomas Pesquet’s photographic career began in earnest during his first stay on the ISS, when he felt the need to share what he experienced, what was in front of him: “It’s something that came to me late and I got caught up in the gameexplains the astronaut. It became my hobby, I wanted to develop in order to share with people.” A hobby he often pursued on Saturdays after doing “housekeeping on the ISS”he said with unsettling detachment.

© Renaud Labracherie / Digital

Although photography is not part of the missions assigned to the members of the ISS, the latter receive some photography lessons CP level, he laughs. The goal is to be able to take a photo and send it to the control center on Earth when a technical problem requires it, but also to document certain meteorological events. “The only images of Earth that are required are when there is a natural disaster or things happen, like a fire”indicates the native of Rouen.

From automatic mode to manual

According to the former head of the International Space Station, everyone takes pictures on the ISS, but “Some people are satisfied with the automatic mode. And then there are people who want to go a little further”. The trigger in the case of Thomas Pesquet: “You look out the window and you think it’s crazy. Then you take pictures and it stinks. So you tell yourself that something has to be done.”

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Thomas Pesquet in the ISS.

© ESA

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Yes, but when you are at an altitude of 400 km, learning photography is not easy. “I don’t want to talk about pain, but it wasn’t necessarily an easy road”admits the astronaut. “In space photography there is a progression curve which means that at the beginning […] we click-click through the window and manage to get something pretty good with a wow effect […] Then we realize that if we want to try to show people what we see, we will immediately be very limited. And then you have to start caring and understanding what you’re doing, and that’s what happened.”

Difficulty preparing for sessions

During his two missions to the ISS, Thomas Pesquet claims to have taken a total of 245,000 images, “including 240,000 misses, 5000 not misses, 2000 shown and 300 in a book”. For him, the picture is a pleasure, but also a monstrous work done under important technical limitations. Corresponding to the means on board, i.e. sometimes old equipment and a space station “with small, impractical portholes” was not designed to shoot.

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Bahamas, the “Postcard” astronauts according to Thomas Pesquet.

© Thomas Pesquet

First of all, it was difficult to properly prepare the photo sessions because it was not always possible to foresee the visible subjects at the time of the shooting: “The problem is that while our orbital plane is fixed in space, the Earth rotates below it. For each rotation of the Earth, if you divide 360° by 24 hours, that gives 17.5° per hour. So after each orbit of the ISS, the Earth has rotated. There’s really no predictability. We have a little software: you click on a place, like Machu Picchu, and it tells you the passage will be in about five days, but that doesn’t necessarily help because there won’t be any, maybe not, or else at night. It’s not an exact science.”

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Although after a few months he could easily recognize the regions of the Earth without a map in hand, Thomas Pesquet also used an opportunistic way of working: “I have a photographer friend who says that photography is hunting or fishing. Hunting is when you know the target, you look for it, and I did […] Fishing is mostly opportunity photography. We go to the window, and then there is always something that catches the eye. And it’s more fun, you manage to take really better pictures.”

The difficulty of taking pictures from space

In addition to the preparation of the sessions, many technical limitations hinder the space photographer’s work during the shoot. Thomas Pesquet talked a lot about the reflections of the portholes – it is then necessary to stick to the glass – or the ISS itself, which will often be placed in the field of the instrument. But the difficulties do not end there.

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ISS and a Soyuz spacecraft. Visible light means the station is manned.

© Thomas Pesquet

First of all, if the state of weightlessness is an asset to avoid feeling the weight of the boxes and the impressive telephoto lenses available in the ISS, it presents obvious stability problems. “You’re not very stableexplains this serious candidate for a mission to the Moon. You need three points because with two points you are stabilized on a single axis. But how do you hold your 400mm lens even if it’s floating? […] There are also shutter speeds below which it doesn’t work, 1/25s, 1/20s, etc. So you add and you have to correct the path [de la Terre et de l’ISS, NDLR] because if you stay still, the scene moves. You try to keep up with a kind of rotation, and click-click.” At telephoto, the Earth’s roll is fast, not to mention the displacement of the ISS in its orbit. Everything, including the photographer, is floating in space, so it is difficult to get sharp pictures.

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Lighting control is also a challenge in itself: “The Earth looks very bright with the reflection of the sun. You can get sunburned if you stay out the window too long. And the station, even with the lights on, is infinitely darker than the outside. If you want to make a classic shot of the guy in front of the window with the Earth in the background, this is the hardest photo in the world; you need five blinks […] Also at night it is really complicated to take a clear picture because you have no light. For Paris or Los Angeles, OK, but a city of a million people, it’s a small bright spot 400 km away.”

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A trail of stars with Earth in the foreground.

© Thomas Pesquet

Once the shooting session is over, it’s time to develop the images. Thomas Pesquet explains that he started with treatments on the spot and “random” with free software installed on laptops (“The 1990s”) on board the station, which allowed him to post 3MB JPGs on social media, he claims. Since then, the self-proclaimed “Sunday photographer” has traveled an impressive photographic path. During the conference, he also commented on a few important photos for him, including a long exposure image with an elegant trail of stars, evidence of the development of his technical know-how and his artistic vision.

An exhibition in 2023

The fact that we have dwelled in this article on the work of Thomas Pesquet does not detract from the work of the other two photographers invited to the event (which we strongly invite you to admire by clicking on the reader at the top of this page) . The conference highlighted the climate emergency facing humanity today. Through the prism of their goals, Laurent Ballesta, Vincent Munier and Thomas Pesquet presented their vision of a planet as beautiful as it is fragile, “with optimism, but without naivety”confirms Nicolas Gillet, director of marketing and communications at Nikon France.

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Nikon conference 3 looks like 1 single planet

© Renaud Labracherie / Digital

In July 2021, Laurent Ballesta and Thomas Pesquet had exchanged by video conference, when the first was 100 km underwater for his Gombessa 6 expedition, while the second lived on the ISS at an altitude of 400 km. asked by Digital about the genesis of the conference 3 appearances, 1 single planetof which he is the initiator, explains Nicolas Gillet: “When Laurent Ballesta and Thomas Pesquet made their vision, I told myself that the three should be brought together. They had a certain consistency in their way of expressing themselves to the world […] The three elements [l’eau, la terre et l’air, NDLR] jumped out at me.” Nicolas Gillet therefore approached Laurent Ballesta and Vincent Munier, who immediately joined the project. “Then we had to get in touch with Thomas Pesquet”the last member to join the crew.

laurentballesta

The purpose of this collaboration would not just be the conference held at the Salon de la Photo, says Nikon’s marketing and communications director: “Actually, this conference was a kind of opening for us, because we basically wanted to launch an exhibition with the images of the three photographers. Unfortunately, it is complicated to organize with each other’s busy schedules, but we are working on it. We hope to be able to launch the exhibition soon, perhaps in 2023.”

Vincent Munier

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