Via Lactea

Sean Chung (

I still remember a ten-year-old Sean, sitting on a library floor, poring over pictures of the heavens for hours at a time. The Milky Way was my favorite, but it always looked so out of reach, like something that I would always chase and never find. Years later, when I caught the faintest glimmer of that starry strip in one of my nighttime photos, it lit a fire under me to turn that glimmer into something magnificent.

In 9th grade, I set out to accomplish something that I had only dreamt about as a child: Create a photo of the galaxy. I was sure I could turn that dim glow that I saw into the beauty that those astronomy books had promised me was out there.

That night, I rushed out into my backyard, with camera in hand. After snapping a few pictures, I ran back inside to revel over the majestic pictures that I was certain awaited me. Loading up the pictures, I saw - nothing. Well, not actually nothing. There were stars, just not a brightly glowing galaxy.

Maybe it was time to quit; maybe my excitement had clouded my reason. I was, at the time, no stranger to quitting. But something told me that it wasn't the time to fall back on old habits. So back to the drawing board I went.

The main problem was light; there simply was not enough. Research told me that, to get those heavenly shots, people were: 1) traveling to completely dark locations, 2) using fabulously expensive equipment, and 3) processing their photos with expensive software. I, meanwhile, was: 1) stuck in my backyard; 2) using a ten year old camera; and 3) short of the money for that software.

I briefly considered convincing my parents to buy the gear to do it "right", but knowing me, I was infinitely happier forging my own path. The product of my burning passion was a cycle of experimentation that eventually led me to the stars.

The easy part involved learning how manipulating the dials and buttons played with light, and then using that knowledge to capture as much light as possible. More challenging, however, was creating a strategy for processing the camera files, because no guides could help me with my specific problem.

Eventually, many nights of experimentation inside and outside yielded a couple of working strategies. In place of a low light sensor, I could stack together several photographs and "add" the results. Lacking a wide angle lens, I digitally collaged together a dozen pictures to get the fuller view I wanted. Now all that was left was to find our galaxy.

It took a few more weeks, but eventually I had a photo I could be proud of: A magenta and cream colored cloud hovering over my backyard. By accomplishing something I thought unimaginable even a short few months earlier, I began to feel that I could be anyone and do anything.

The next summer, when my part time job financed a much better camera, my desire to get photos of the sky reawakened. But even though the photos were now cleaner and crisper than anything I had ever produced, they never triggered that same feeling of awe and inspiration that I remembered. But that is to be expected. The first time is always the best.

I have not forgotten looking at my photograph and feeling free, that the sky was not the limit, but instead a beautifully sparkling curtain hiding infinite possibilities. No challenge that I have surmounted since then has equaled the inspiration provided by that first breakthrough.