In what is most likely the longest-exposure photograph ever taken, Regina Valkenborgh has captured 2,953 sunrises and sunsets in a single astonishing image.
The pinhole camera with which the photo was taken managed to survive more than eight years of British Weather at Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory.
Valkenborgh placed the pinhole camera onto the telescope back in 2012, when she was a MA Fine Art student at the University of Herfordshire. The camera was forgotten, and sat there collecting light until it was discovered in September 2020 by David Campbell—the observatory’s principal technical officer.
Valkenborgh assumed that all of the pinhole cameras she placed around the observatory were ruined due to exposure to the elements, and told Campbell to throw them away, but Campbell fortunately decided to take a look and see if the photographs turned out. Miraculously, the camera had survived, and the cider can enclosure had dutifully protected the photographic paper within.
Luckily, David had a look before he chucked it in the bin.Regina Valkenborgh
8 years of exposure to weather could easily destroy any pinhole camera. It was a stroke of luck that Valkenborgh’s camera survived.
Above, you can see a normal photo from the same perspective to to see what exactly was in Valkenborgh’s photo. On the left is the oldest telescope at Bayfordbury Observatory, built in all the way back in 1969. On the right is an atmospheric research gantry that wasn’t even built until halfway through the exposure.
How long exposure photography works.
To truly appreciate what is going on in this image, one must first understand long-exposure photography. It’s a photographic technique where a camera’s shutter is left open to capture the passage of time in an image.
Long exposures are commonly used in many photographic disciplines, including landscape photography, urban photography, and astrophotography. All motion in long exposure photos appears blurred. The flowing movement of water becomes haze streaks of white, the passing of cars leaves light trails from their lights, and the movement of stars form trails in the sky.
In extreme examples such as Valkenborgh’s, the passing of entire years are burned into the photographic paper. The movement of the sun through the sky changes with the seasons, and even the light trails created vary in brightness depending on how cloudy that day was. Days where there were no clouds appear as bright streaks in the sky and cloudy days appear as dimmer bands.
This type of photograph is an example of a “solargraph”.
Solargraphy is the photographic genre of capturing these kinds of sun trails. Search for ‘solargraphy’ on Flickr and you’ll see hundreds of examples of people taking these kinds of shots, leaving pinhole cameras lying around for months at a time to capture the suns movement through the sky. You can see one of the better examples of a solargraph below, taken by Willi Winzig.
Amazing images, produced with simple cameras.
The pinhole cameras that are used to take these kinds of images can be made out of just about any kind of enclosure. People use shoeboxes, beer cans, books, and all kinds of other every day objects to create these images. The photos are often ruined due to exposure to the elements, moisture making it inside the enclosure, an imperfect light seal, or any number of other factors. Pinhole cameras are simple devices, but do need to be built correctly. The trick is to make the camera weather and animal-proof, and to make sure that the size of the pinhole is correct. Too large, and the photo will be overexposed and washed out. Too small, and the photo will appear too dark as not enough light will have made it in.
For those who don’t want to deal with making their own pinhole camera, ready-made cameras are commercially available.
Solargraphy is a process of trial and error.
Since pinhole cameras can be ruined in any number of ways, creating good solargraphs can be challenging. Ensuring the integrity of your cameras and making many cameras at once is a good method of increasing your chances of success. Valkeborgh’s exposure is just one of many she had taken during her time at the observatory. You can see one of her other solargraphs in the link below:
Regina had taken many similar “solargraphs” at Bayfordbury during her time as artist-in-residence. These are typically exposed for 6 months to show the rise and fall of the sun from solstice to solstice: https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap120121.htmlUniversity of Hertfordshire Observatory (@BradfordburyObs), December 10, 2020 on Twitter
All-in-all, Valkenborgh’s eight-year solargraph is an astounding image. Capturing that kind of duration of time in one photo is both a beautiful and scientifically valuable venture. The fact that it can be done with nothing more than a cider can, some duct tape, and a sheet of light-sensitive paper makes it all the more amazing. Valkenborgh had this to say about about her photograph:
It was a stroke of luck that the picture was left untouched, to be saved by David after all these years.
I had tried this technique a couple of times at the Observatory before, but the photographs were often ruined by moisture and the photographic paper curled up.
I hadn’t intended to capture an exposure for this length of time and to my surprise, it had survived. It could be one of, if not the, longest exposures in existence.Regina Valkenborgh