Milky Way Down Under

By Phil Plait | July 6, 2012 10:39 am

Russ Brown is a gifted photographer (here’s proof — haha, "proof", I slay me). He sent me a picture he took of the Milky Way over Wellington, NSW (Australia) and it’s stunning!

The detail and structure you can see in the center of our galaxy are astonishing, and I was amazed when Russ told me this was a single 30-second exposure! At an ISO of 3200 and a 14 mm lens set to f/3.3, though, you suck down a lot of light (the building must have been very dark for it not to be hugely overexposed, too). I cut my teeth using actual film for photography, and a picture like this would’ve been incredibly difficult to set up. Nowadays it’s not exactly easy, but it’s easier.

Not to take anything away from Russ’s picture! It takes a good eye and good processing skills to create such a lovely photo like this one. And I’m not at all jealous of the equipment people have now compared to what I had when I was taking tons of pictures and developing them in my bathroom and spending all my allowance and newspaper delivery money on chemicals and paper and an onion to tie to my belt because it was the style of the time.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Milky Way, Russel Brown

Comments (25)

  1. Marina Stern

    Hahahahahaha! Onion on your belt!

  2. PsyberDave

    Ha ha. Yeah, onion.

  3. chief

    I had to dig a bit in the memory to figure out the term ‘Proof’ for the term on photography. This may now be a bit past the current generation (or two).

    Onion = Orion? Not bad. But I keep thinking of the web site Onion (for this reference) which all the overseas (and not so distant) news sources keep using for it’s current events to print.

    One of these days I hope to get some pics close to this but I’d need to hold more than a few candles to these guys. Great pictures.

  4. Christine

    Always stylish, even in the bathr– er, darkroom!

  5. Andrew H.

    News…paper? Is that one of those old timey things like a carriage or a steam boat?

    There are systems available that project pictures on to walls for the purpose of painting the projection to make it permanent. So many of the pictures you post on here. Especially the enormous one you posted last month of the Carina Nebula make me want one so I can paint it onto a ceiling. One way or another, I’m definitely doing that with one of the pictures you (or in my future child’s nursery every one of the pictures you post makes me want it more.

    Also, your readers might like that there is an APOD app for desktops that automatically downloads the picture each day and makes it your desktop wallpaper for the day.

  6. Joseph G

    Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel, and in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on ’em. Give me five bees for a quarter, you’d say.
    Now where were we? Oh yeah: the important thing was I had an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time. They didn’t have white onions because of the war. The only thing you could get was those big yellow ones…

  7. RobT

    An onion on the belt – wasn’t that about the time the Kaiser stole the word twenty? Sometime in 19-dicketies?

  8. Joseph G

    Also, Phil, as a kid, you spent your allowance and paper-delivering money on darkroom chemicals? I have a whole new respect for your level of geekdom. That’s several orders of magnitude more Geek-Cred then you could ever get from memorizing any amount of Star Wars trivia (adjusted for inflation, of course – the market was flooded with GC in the late nineties, and we’re still recovering).

  9. kevin

    Stunning picture! I’m sure you knew someone would have to ask, so let it be me…. any idea what the building in the foreground is?

  10. Bob

    Also, Proof was a good Australian film about photography. Well, not really about it, but it was central.

  11. Duane

    Do we know how much of our galaxy we can see from Earth? I’m curious to know how far into the center, and how many different structures (arms, etc) we can see with the naked eye. Any idea?

  12. AliCali

    “Onion on the belt”

    I love how a little line from The Simpsons in 1993 (almost 20 years ago!) triggers memories in so many people. Maybe because that is the best episode they ever made, where Homer became head of the union.

  13. AliCali


    “Do we know how much of our galaxy we can see from Earth? I’m curious to know how far into the center, and how many different structures (arms, etc) we can see with the naked eye. Any idea?”

    It’s really difficult to pick out the arms and core with the naked eye for a few reasons. First, we’re looking mostly edge-on at the arms (except ours), so they blend together. Second, and more importantly, there is a lot of dust blocking what we can see, so it’s like we’re in a fog. Just like in a fog, you can see the same distance all around, but not really get a sense of the surrounding features just outside of the fog.

    The fog analogy is one reason why most people thought the Sun was at the center of the Milky Way, since everything seemed pretty close to the same all around us. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that we figured out we’re off to the side. Harlow Shapley figured this out by getting the distance to globular clusters and making a map. Jan Oort and Bertl Lindblad independently measured the proper motion of stars and found them rotating around a common center, which matched what Shapley found. (I hope I got the names right.)

    Sorry, I got off topic.

  14. ron jennings

    You sir, are a loon. And as a canadian, I know them well…
    I too spent allowance money on darkroom chemicals in my youth, I share your pain…
    Digital photography is just too darn easy nowadays, any whippersnapper can do amazing things. Jealous? me? Nah…

  15. Matt B.

    @12 AliCali – It’s been repopularized by Stephanie Miller. She used to play that bit of Abe Simpson a lot when she talked about John McCain. Also Prof. Farnsworth’s “Oh, I don’t have time for this. I have to go buy a single piece of fruit with a coupon and then return it, making people wait behind me while I complain.”

  16. Thanks Phil, for your kind praise!


    The building is the old Wellington hospital, built in 1903. (You can just see the year if you look closely!) Now converted to function rooms and accomodation. (Hence the nice opportunity for a cool picture!) FWIW, the light on the building is from some fairly distant street lighting.

  17. Brian Too

    I tried some night-time photography years ago. I had ultrasonic lenses and auto-focus so that part was taken care of. However the big remaining problem was my viewfinder was so dark, it was hard to frame the shot or even know if your subject was entirely in frame!

  18. Larry Heilman

    Bathroom photography ! yes I got started that way too, b&w 35mm. went on to work for a great photographer while in college. We mixed our own developers and fixers from bags of chemicals (commercial pre mix not good enough) Did some astro photos (film) while at workshops out at McDonald Observatory.

  19. MadScientist

    I wish my proofs looked that good – but then again I either photographed in B/W or with color positive film. I hadn’t done any serious photography for about 20 years now, but I’m hoping I have enough money one day to cobble something together from a few E2V frame transfer detectors and a filtered beam combiner out of an old Barco LCD projector.

  20. Daniel J. Andrews

    I used to develop film and pics for the yearbook. Just black and white. We sent out the colour ones to a proper lab. I didn’t do developing at home, but I did budget my allowance money for film and processing. You were extra careful when you took shots back then as it cost money. Seems like an age ago although there were no onions on belts at the time so it can’t be ancient history (on the other hand, there were no Simpsons either so…..).

    Gorgeous picture from Russ. Thank you for sharing.

  21. Alan Harris

    Nice picture, from an unusual location. Wellington, AU, as opposed to Wellington, NZ, is a tiny little town of a few thousand population, at most, out in the bush of NSW, about half way between Canberra and Siding Spring. I’ve actually been there, and in fact that was the location where I got my best view of the galactic center, looking a lot like Brown’s photo. How I happened to end up there was in 1983, about this time of year, when my astronomer friends Dave Morrison and Ted Bowell decided to spend the weekend in the middle of the Sydney IAU General Assembly visiting a small wine district around Mudgee, in that area (also not far from Parkes). Well, it turned out that weekend was also the annual county fair, and no hotels were to be had, so we drove further into the bush and ended up in Wellington, a town with only one motel that we saw, but fortunately one that had three rooms open, quite cheap and nice. After a pleasant dinner of Oz lamb and Mudgee wines (byob — free corkage), Dave Morrison and I drove out of town to a totally dark spot and sat out for half an hour or so to get fully dark adapted and admire the southern Milky Way. The galactic center was pretty much dead overhead, and blazed brilliantly as in Russ Brown’s picture. The only thing less than perfect with this orientation is that when the galactic center is overhead, the Magellanic Clouds are on the horizon. But there they were! The sky was so clear and dark that they were clearly visible only a few degrees off the horizon. The view from the south is indeed striking, so much so that I have often speculated that if western civilization had originated in the southern hemisphere, we wouldn’t have had to wait for Hubble et al. to figure out galaxies, Aristotle and his friends would have deduced it all for us just by looking up.

  22. jearley

    The usual figure that is given for how much of the Milky Way can we see is about 10%. Being in the galaxy, we can’t really see the arms very well- ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’ . We can see the arms that are closest to us fairly well- the Orion Spur, the Sagittarius arm, etc. The positions of all of the arms were mapped out using radio telescopes. The details of how they did it- using the different Doppler shifts of the arms- are fascinating.

  23. Ken Hays

    A wonderful photo of what has been called the great rift, but Newspapers? Film? I sang Paul Simon’s ‘kodachrome’, at karaoke one night, and a young man actually asked me what that was. I guess I’m just getting old along with the rest of the galaxy.

  24. Duane

    @13 Alicali, @22 jearley,

    Thanks for your responses. I’m definitely not an astronomy neophyte, but it’s a question I’ve never thought to ask until now!

    I found this diagram on wikipedia that definitely answers some questions:

    That explains why the Milky Way is so bright during the winter when we are facing away from the galactic center: the Perseus Arm is a monster!

  25. Robert Burns

    The picture itself is awesome. It is like an out of this world…thing. If you didn’t tell me it was the Milky Way, I would think of it as one photographic effect. Absolutely stunning.


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