Southern Illinois astrophotographer captures the night sky in these incredible images

Southern Illinois astrophotographer captures the night sky in these incredible images


Few things in this world are more beautiful than the night sky. But, because of the ever increasing light pollution, few have seen the night sky in all its photogenic glory. One local man is putting his technical expertise to use bringing heavenly beauty to Southern Illinois. 

“I think that people really enjoy seeing my astrophotography because it is getting harder and harder to experience,” said John O’Connell, a local astrophotographer and teacher, who is also a PhD student in zoology at SIU that centers on digital mapping and aerial imagery. “I am lucky to live in Southern Illinois where light pollution is relatively low compared to major cities, but it still has enough that it washes out our view of many stars.”

O’Connell says that light pollution is only continuing to increase around the world, but with long exposures and advanced photo processing, he says he can show people what they are missing with their eyes.”

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And what the naked eye misses is awesome. O’Connell’s astro-art takes its inspiration from the artist’s enthusiasm for the night sky. “There might be as many reasons to enjoy astrophotography as there are stars in the sky, but it does have several aspects that I particularly enjoy. First, I grew up in Miami, FL where I could count the stars. For me to walk outside in Southern Illinois and see so many stars that I could never dream of counting them all just blows me away every time,” O’Connell said. 

Take, for instance, his “Grassy Bay Milky Way” which is featured this month at the Artspace 304 gallery, in the exhibit “Nature,” which showcases the beauty of Southern Illinois in a variety of media. The scene immerses you literally right in the water of the Crab Orchard Lake, and among the lotus fields which sprung up during the once-in-a-decade lowering of the water levels. O’Connell describes how he enjoyed exploring the banks with his photography colleagues by boat, but decided to get a closer look.  

“I then walked about 30 yards from the boat in knee-to-waist deep muck with about 6 inches of water on top. Of course, I forgot something in the boat and had to do the trip twice! I set my tripod with the camera close to the water to capture the trio of lotus at the bottom of the image complete with the water drops that were beaded up on top,” O’Connell said. 

What was captured over dozens of exposures and several panoramic stitching’s is a cosmic vision from the very humble but mystical lotus leaves of Southern Illinois. Light dances off the leaves as your eye traces them into infinity to the horizon, a darkened mass of trees in the distance. Just there at the darkest point of the photograph, a soothing orange glow rises up from the dark horizon into a galactic display of the Milky Way stood on end, pointing higher and higher as if to summon our vision beyond Southern Illinois lowlands whence it originated to the stars above and beyond to the furthest reaches of reality. The photograph is simply a masterpiece of art, both technically flawless and aesthetically rich, and, what’s most important, spiritually enlightening. We are called from the mud, the slime of the earth, to the stars, or from humility to a homeland among the stars.  

O’Connell has honed his photography art through countless hours reading and watching video tutorials, and trial and error, and now he wants to share his proven knowledge with others, even if it costs him.  

“I know that there are many people who want to capture the amazing night sky in Southern Illinois, so I put together a workshop, along with some fellow night photographers, to help people get started in that endeavor. Our focus will be on landscape astrophotography in particular, meaning pairing the sky with a foreground scene. My goal is that everyone will have the tools that they need to go out on their own and capture the Milky Way,” O’Connell said, who jokes that it is somewhat risky sharing his knowledge, because he is training tomorrow’s competition, but he says he maintains a collaborative and supportive mentality nevertheless. “Further, I liken photography to a journey, one in which I can give people some skills to help them navigate their own route and to their own goals, but not turn-by-turn directions to duplicate my work or style. Besides, where’s the fun in that?!”

O’Connell says that he hopes his art brings the viewer joy, happy memories, calm, wonder, or other pleasant feelings – like, for this viewer, spiritual enlightenment.    

“I love hearing from people when I am able to evoke positive emotions in them through my photography. There are plenty of worries in the world, so I hope that my art, whether purchased as a print or enjoyed for free on Facebook, helps make their day better.”

For those who just want to learn photography in general, O’Connell also hosts a free Beginner Outdoor Photography workshops at the Giant City State Park visitor’s center every few months, the next one being July 8. With limited seats are reservations are required, so contact Giant City State Park to claim a spot: (618) 457-4836.

For information about O’Connell’s advanced astrophotography course, go to his website or message him on his Facebook, JohnOConnellPhotography, or, if for nothing else, to see this local artist’s amazing photographs!