Forget Interstellar. The person who has, more than anyone else, made space travel cool again is Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. During his recent stint on the International Space Station, he endeared himself to millions with his take on David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and the dazzling Earth-from-above images he shared on his Twitter account.
His new book, You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes, offers up many more stunning and humorous images of our big blue ball from up in the stars. It’s a gorgeous collection, not only full of stunning photographs of places around the world, but also enlightening text that reveals a unique view of the planet we call home.
We had the very exciting opportunity to chat with Col. Hadfield about the book (from which all proceeds go to the Red Cross and the Michael J. Fox Foundation) and the unique challenges a person with a camera faces in zero gravity.
Shutterstock: Your book is dedicated to your parents for giving you your first camera. How old were you when your life as a photographer began?
Chris Hadfield: I was about 11 or 12, and it wasn’t much of a camera. It was one of those 110 Instamatics with the cartridge that plugged in and out.
How did your love of photography progress from there?
I was really inspired by Yousuf Karsh, the great portrait photographer, so when I got that little Instamatic I tried to take still-life pictures. Later on, I got my first 35mm film camera, and I got better at taking pictures. But I didn’t really make any formal study of photography until I was a fighter pilot flying CF-18s. When we were intercepting Soviet bombers in Canadian airspace, they wanted photographs of them. The F-18 is a single-seat airplane, so there was the complexity of intercepting an armed bomber in a single-seat airplane and then taking detailed photographs of it.
Once I got selected as an astronaut in 1992, that’s when somebody really took the time to start training me as a photographer. For 20 years, I had NASA photographing instructors, starting with still 35mms and then on to IMAX and movie cameras, and all of the digital kinds of video and cameras once they started coming. From all of that, and three space flights, I had the opportunity to put everything together and try and take as good a picture of the world as I could.
Did those photography instructors teach you the rudimentary technical basics of the camera, or things like lighting and composition?
They’re professional photographers, so we were taught composition and lighting. Inside the space station is this sort of strange portraiture with unpleasant lighting. So we were talking about how to use remote flash, how to use natural light, and how to compose. We were quite thoroughly trained.
In the introduction to You Are Here, you stress the importance of composition. What lessons did you learn about that while taking pictures of the Earth?
Don’t just be a robot putting everything inside the square. Think about human nature and psychology. “Where is the eye naturally drawn? Where do you look first, and where do you look second? Where do you want the person looking at the picture to look first?” You can direct the feeling and interpretation of a picture just by being a little bit careful with composition. But also to take ten pictures moving around a little bit. Sometimes because of the change in angle, although you think you’ve got it right, one of those pictures will self-compose. It’ll turn out to be the best of the ten, just because of some subtle difference that is partially a wrongdoing, and partially the randomness of the speed.
Did any lessons you learned from your photography migrate into how you composed and shot your popular “Space Oddity” music video?
I’ve been lucky enough, or maybe unlucky enough, to be the subject of many documentaries. I’ve had documentary crews live in my house and follow me all over the place for days. I watched how they made documentaries, how professionals did their business – how they set up a framing shot, get an intro shot, make an action shot, cut back and forth, decide which direction to walk so that it leads to something else. So when I was setting up the video on the space station, I thought, “Okay, what’s going to be the opening shot here? What do I need? How do I set up? How do I transition? How do I get enough raw material and then something fun? How am I going to end it?” It’s like writing a book or a song. I’m really pleased with the result of that video.
You mention in your introduction that you started off being a scattershot photographer who just indiscriminately took tons of pictures, but then became more selective. A hunter, as you put it, seeking out specific shots. What precipitated that change?
I’ve thought about it since, and it’s like if someone walked you into a baseball field, and in the first 10 minutes said, “Here, take 20 pictures of this place.” Then if you walked into that baseball diamond and lived there for three months, the baseball field wouldn’t have changed, but the pictures that you would take would be significantly different. You would be so much more aware of the intricacies of the place, where the light was interesting, where the shadows show, where there’s a funny juxtaposition of color and contrast, or maybe humorous shapes. Your appreciation and understanding of the subject matter would significantly change over time. The same thing happens with the entire planet after months and thousands of orbits. Your understanding of it is so much more profound, that you do a better job of taking pictures of it. Even though the Earth is sitting there patiently waiting, you become more attuned, like a hunter in a forest.
Did you actually get dedicated time to take pictures?
There is zero dedicated time for pictures during the space flight. For five months, NASA didn’t give me one second to take pictures of the world. Every single one of those pictures is a stolen moment. It’s all just wherever you can squeeze the time in.
I imagine that, as a result, a lot of advanced planning has to go into a photo session.
You have to not only plan ahead, but you have to get ahead of schedule. Some days you really want, say, a nice picture of Venice, but despite your best plans, you’re behind on the experiment you’re running, or busy talking to a specialist, and you just miss the chance for the day. So, yeah, you plan ahead.
What kind of planning goes into capturing a very specific shot in particular?
Say there’s a picture of San Francisco Bay you really like. You have to look ahead to what the weather’s going to be, what time of day it’s going to be, so that things are going to be aligned enough to light up the features you want to see. Then you have to actually, physically be there in the Cupola with enough time to set up the camera. Then if you’re counting on the angle between you, the subject, and the sun being just right, you have to be really careful, because you’re going eight kilometers/five miles a second – that angle changes so fast that your sun is there and it’s gone instantaneously. You really have to anticipate, and then be decisive when you’re taking the picture.
What other unique challenges did you face taking pictures in space?
Normally, when taking a picture on Earth, it’s really hard to hold a camera perfectly still when you’re fighting gravity. You have to raise your skeleton. Then you have all the muscles from the soles of your feet to the tips of your hands fighting each other. Then there’s your heartbeat and breathing. But when you’re weightless, you’re just sort of nudging the camera with your fingertip. And the only real dominant force is your heartbeat. If you’re holding onto the camera too hard, you can see the surges of your heartbeat, because they actually make your arms pulse. You have to be cognizant of your heartbeat and not letting the camera get disrupted by that.
You show an obvious love for Pareidolia throughout your book. Were those images that you sought out, or were they mostly happy accidents?
Most of them pop out. You’re looking at the world through your naked eye and then you see something interesting; you pull a 400mm lens up in front of your eye and look at it, and then you realize that the reason it caught your eye was because of some distinctive familiar shape or something odd about the perspective. Your eye just inherently looks for familiar shapes. Whenever I saw one, it almost invariably made me laugh. There I was looking at the world, and suddenly I saw a little pig, or a dinosaur, or an exclamation mark, or a fish. For me, there was a great poetry in it. I think it’s a human psychology thing. We always interpret faces more strongly than anything else, so you’re looking for them everywhere in the randomness of the world.
Can you talk a bit about some of your favorite cameras or zoom lenses you got to work with?
We had a nice assortment of lenses on board. Everything from very short lenses to the 400mm lens that’s pictured with me in the book. Down in the Russian segment of the station, they had 800mm and 1600mm gigantic bazooka lenses. But the trouble with those is that the detail becomes so great that you lose the beauty of being in space. You may as well have taken those pictures from a tall building. In You Are Here, almost all the pictures were taken with the 400mm.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I didn’t want to make a coffee-table book. I didn’t want people just to see the Earth as a beautiful thing. I want people to think about the world as one place. I want them to actually read the words that I wrote and think their way around the world in 90 minutes, just like astronauts do. So when someone mentions the mines of Russia, or Vesuvius, it’s not just some hypothetical third-hand idea, but something you’ve actually looked at. You’ve thought about it and started to realize the inner-connectivity of it all and how interdependent we are – how we all are essentially a crew on the same big ship. It’s a feeling that astronauts get over time. I thought maybe there was a way to convey that out of the 45,000 pictures that I took.
Want to explore more out-of-this-world imagery? Check out our curated lightbox of outer-space visions from the Shutterstock collection below!