Letters of Recommendation: Just a drop in the Bucket


Elizabeth Sutton

Jupiter shines bright above Eaton Reservoir on a late night shoot in early August

Elizabeth Sutton

Most teenagers would be at a party with friends on a Friday night, but somehow I find myself at Eaton Reservoir at 11:30 p.m. on a Friday night in early August. It’s unusually chilly for August and I’m bundled up in two pairs of pants, a long sleeve shirt, a hoodie, thick socks and boots.

My tripod is strapped to the camera bag riding on my back as I make my way onto a little stretch of land that reaches out into the water. Cold dew has set in at this point of the night, and the dampness is cutting through all my layers, but nonetheless I set up my tripod and camera gear and stare up into the night sky, wondering what shot I will frame and what the image will look like after I snap the shutter. 

I’ve always been into photography, but didn’t really explore it until my freshman year of high school. Since then I haven’t put my camera down. I’ve taken thousands of photos over the last two and a half years, maybe even tens of thousands. 

My love of photography has me analyzing photographs taken by others and wondering how I could mimic the effects. I have seen countless photos of the cosmos above and never thought I could capture something like that. I figured I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t have the skill. I didn’t know enough. I didn’t have powerful enough camera equipment. I had tons of reasons why I didn’t even try to capture the night sky in a digital image. 

Until one day I did, and the results got me hooked. It was just one step to getting what many photographers call their “bucket shot,” a bucket list photo they’ll spend their entire careers working on. 

In June, I went into my backyard at an ungodly, pitch dark hour to try. I had help from friends who knew more than I did. After lots of trial and error, I took my first astrophotography snapshot.

The galactic core shines bright one June evening, letting Elizabeth Sutton capture her first astrophotography photo. (Elizabeth Sutton)

This new endeavor has taught me so much about star-gazing and especially how to do it with a camera in my hand. I now know that when you look up at the sky, you see only a fraction of what you can capture with a camera lens, and the longer you stare at the sky the more stars you can see. 

As I looked at the display on my camera, I could see stars – in a photo that I took. It was the first moment where I thought, “Hey, I really can do this.” 

After that night I could only think about trying again and again, and I did. Many nights I would go out and take pictures for an hour or more and get nothing. 

But one of those nights I went back out to try again, and found myself at Eaton Reservoir, with my camera, my tripod and the universe. 

When looking through the viewfinder of my camera, I don’t see much. Sure there are some fuzzy dots, but they’re hard to see and probably out of focus. Finding the brightest star, or planet to focus on makes everything clearer. 

That night, I found Jupiter. In mid to late summer and even into fall, Saturn and Jupiter are two of the brightest dots in the sky. They appear about “three-inches” apart if you know where to look. I focused the lens on Jupiter and began shooting. I shot not only Jupiter, but the galaxy and its stars. 

After maybe two hours, the moon became too bright, and made it hard to capture the photos I wanted, so we packed up and left the cold, dampness behind. 

Looking at the photos the next morning, I noticed that I not only got a picture of Jupiter, but four of its moons were also visible in the photos. 

As much as I have come to enjoy night time shooting sessions, I have learned just as much about post processing digital astrophotography shots, and now understand that certain tweaks to a raw photo is what makes the sky even more spectacular. Adjusting the digital image  can bring out clouds of space dust colors, and by knowing where to look and what colors they are, you can really emphasize them and make them pop. 

I can spend hours and hours editing a single photo, and that’s what I did for this one. I captured one photo that night, the galactic core overhead, the twinkling light reflecting off the water of Eaton Reservoir, trees lining the water. This photo is just drop in the bucket on my way to my “bucket shot.”