The NASA Image of the day on August 6, 2020, is this picture titled "A Starry Sky Above the Earth's Atmospheric Glow":

enter image description here

(Source and full resolution Image)

When looking at this photo, I wondered why the earth was not overexposed (it is slightly, but still very visible; i.e. it is not fully blown out). My first idea was that multiple exposures have been stacked (like in HDR), but after downloading the photo, I realized that it was a single photo with the following settings:

28mm on Nikon D5
Shutter speed: 1/2 second
Aperture: f/1.4
ISO 12800
Exposure correction: -2EV

As far as I knew, the brightness difference between the earth and the stars is too large to show both of them in the same exposure. The description states that the photo was taken

as the International Space Station orbited above the Indian Ocean about halfway between South Africa and Australia

There is no time in the EXIF data (only the time when I downloaded the photo), but it seems to me that the earth is evenly lit, so it should be shot around midday at local time - i.e. when the sun appears to be brightest on earth and, I think, the earth reflects the most light.

For example, if you look at this Photo ("Apollo 8: Earthrise") where you can see the earth rising over the moon's surface:

enter image description here

(Source and full resolution image)

The earth is still bright (but a lot less bright than in the first image), and there is no star visible. The photo was shot on film, so there is no metadata, but through audio recordings, the settings could be reconstructed:

250mm on Hasselblad 500EL, 70mm-film
Shutter speed: 1/250 second
Aperture: f/11
Film Sensitivity: (?)

(Sources: How NASA’s Iconic ‘Earthrise’ Photo Was Shot, Earthrise)

As I do not know the film sensitivity (ISO) of the Earthrise image, I cannot directly compare them, but even if we were to assume that both photos were shot at ISO 12800 (I don't think this was possible in 1968), this is a difference of 11 Stops.

So how is it possible that the earth is only moderately overexposed in the first image?

Has dynamic range in cameras increased so much since then? The Nikon D5 has, according to DxOMark, a Dynamic Range of about 9 EV (stops) at ISO 12800. As far as I know, Hasselblad cameras have always been very high quality and probably also had a high DR.

I am looking forward to your answers! Note: I do in no way believe that space images are "fake", that the earth is flat or other such things. I only want to understand how this image was taken without blowing out the earth, as there is no description on how it was shot at the NASA page.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I believe any modern camera has better dynamic range than a 60s camera. Also photo editing techniques has also been improved. \$\endgroup\$
    – vsis
    Aug 6, 2020 at 21:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ I meant 60s film vs modern sensors. \$\endgroup\$
    – vsis
    Aug 6, 2020 at 21:25
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @vsis additionally, that particular photo was shot on Ektachrome, which is a slide film with limited DR. \$\endgroup\$
    – timvrhn
    Aug 7, 2020 at 16:29
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ If Ektachrome had been properly exposed for the part of the Earth not in direct sunlight, stars would have been visible, too. \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    Aug 7, 2020 at 23:48

2 Answers 2


Assuming this is a single exposure, it must have been taken on the night side of the Earth, and the impression of daylight can be caused by the moon, like in those night time photos.

Taking this ISS video as a reference, the relation of brightness of the nighttime earth surface, airglow, stars and ISS components, seems to be about right.

enter image description here

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer, that makes sense. Now that I think about it, you porbably would no be able to see the atmosphere in such way if it was midday. \$\endgroup\$
    – jng224
    Aug 7, 2020 at 8:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ shutterstock.com/de/video/… I also found this timelapse of the aurora australis where the earth is of comparable brightness (overall, the footage is a bit darker), and as we know, the aurora is only visible during night. \$\endgroup\$
    – jng224
    Aug 7, 2020 at 8:18
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Jonas actually, the fact that airglow is visible in your photo points to the image being of the night side of the Earth. Airglow is even fainter than aurorae. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ruslan
    Aug 7, 2020 at 11:50

The same way details on the surface of the Moon and a few stars are visible in this photo:

enter image description here

The surface of the Moon, at least the parts that have visible details, are not lit by direct sunlight. Rather, the Moon is illuminated by "Earthshine".

In the case of your photo taken from the ISS, it appears the Earth is being lit by "Moonshine" when the Sun is well below the horizon.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.