Jack Fusco is known for his awe-inspiring images of the night sky, which have been featured in publications like National Geographic, Outside, and many others. Here, he lets us in on his creative process, shares tips for amateur stargazers, and explains how his accidental first photo of the stars led him to his unique career path.
You got your start in photography as a touring musician documenting your travels, but you’ve since transitioned to focus on the night sky. Was there an experience or moment that triggered your fascination with the night sky?
I grew up in New Jersey, which is the most densely populated state in the country, and that also means I grew up not really seeing many stars. I don’t think I ever realized you could even see the Milky Way.
I bought my first camera before heading out on a European tour with a band I was just joining and really had no idea how to use it. I kept it in a backpack and would wander around venues whenever I had free time, but I didn’t really use it too much. It wasn’t until I stopped touring a few years later that I really started to finally use it. I still didn’t know anything about photography, so trying to take photographs of sunrise over the ocean made most sense to me at the time.
As I started learning and experimenting with long exposures, I began heading back to the beach at sunset and kept staying out later and later. Eventually, I took my first photo that had a couple of stars in—accidentally. It was that exact moment that I was hooked. Astrophotography wasn’t really popular outside of the astronomy world at that point, so it was a lot of trial and error to figure things out. It was so exciting to be capturing views of the night sky that I didn’t realize existed.
What was the first camera you owned?
The first camera I bought was a Canon XTi with a standard kit lens.
When did you start getting serious about photography?
Even before I knew what I was doing, photography definitely filled the void that music left. I was getting that same type of feeling of being on stage and playing music from taking a photo and sharing it with people. Both were things that I loved doing on a very personal level. So, it became important to me pretty quickly. I was very fortunate that people were interested in my work as I was just starting out. Getting to share something you love and have people appreciate and connect with it is an awesome feeling.
What was the moment when you realized that photography could be your career?
A year or so after starting to take photos of the night sky, I got in to time-lapse and spent about 11 months trying out different things to complete a video. Shortly after finishing my first time-lapse video, Home At The Shore, it was featured on the homepage of National Geographic. After that, I started getting calls to take photos and shoot time-lapse in different places. I kept taking time off of work to make it happen. Eventually it just made sense to try and pursue photography as a career.
Volcanoes National Park.
"I remember standing on the beach, pointing my camera in different directions, and being completely unsure of what I was doing. It didn’t come out great . . . but it was enough to keep me going back out."
Capturing the night sky in such vibrant detail requires skill and lots of planning. Tell us about the first time you attempted a dark sky photo.
After the first time I accidentally took a photo that had a few stars in it, I went out the next night to try again. I had looked online and saw a photo of the Milky Way and immediately thought, “I want to do that.” I knew nothing about light pollution, how the moon would impact my photos, or even how to find the Milky Way, so that shoot went very poorly. I remember standing on the beach, pointing my camera in different directions, and being completely unsure of what I was doing. It didn’t come out great and I didn’t capture the Milky Way that night, but it was enough to keep me going back out.
How has your photography evolved since then?
Almost all the images I take now are planned in advance. That’s an aspect that I have grown to love. The whole process of pre-visualizing a photo, figuring out where and when to take it is something I really enjoy. It’s a great feeling when it all comes together and you come home with the image you planned out.
What’s typically in your gear kit these days?
That’s a tougher question than it seems like! I’ve been lucky enough to work with Sigma for a few years, so I’m always using their lenses. That’s allowed me to kind of bounce between camera manufacturers a bit. For the most part, I’ve stuck with Nikon and Sony camera bodies and prime or fixed focal length Sigma lenses. Those types of lenses typically have faster apertures and allow more light in, which is huge for astrophotography. My go to lenses are the Sigma 14mm f1.8, 28mm f1.4, 40mm 1.4, 105 f1.4
Where does your creative inspiration come from?
This is something that really varies. A lot of the time I’ll have a partial idea for a photo, but may not be sure how or what the rest of the elements might be. When I first moved to the West Coast, I wanted to photograph the Milky Way from inside a sea cave. I spent time looking through Google Earth and heading out to a general location to spend the afternoon exploring. I came across a couple of spots that almost worked, but it took six or seven months before I found the right spot and everything finally worked out.
I love taking photos of the night sky with our boxer, Kona, too. I’m constantly trying to find ways and locations for the two of us to be in a photo together. Having a person (or dog) in a photo at night means you have to stay perfectly still for the duration of the long exposure. That definitely can limit the type of things you can do, but it’s always fun to find ideas that push that as far as possible.
Tell us about your favorite photo you've taken.
After capturing a few photos of Comet NEOWISE, I knew I wanted a photo of my boxer, Kona, and I out stargazing together. Kona has come on a lot of my night sky adventures and been in a number of photos before, so I knew I could pull it off.
I needed a spot where Kona and I could sit and appear above the horizon. This way we would both easily stand out in the photo. I had scouted this area in the past, so I was pretty positive it would work before we got there. I took a few test shots when we arrived and was very excited after checking them out on the back of my camera. It was about an hour later that the comet was high enough in the sky to take the photo.
Jack and Kona looking up at Comet NEOWISE.
I set my camera on time-lapse mode so it would keep taking images and we both ran to the rock and did our best to sit still. I didn’t have a very big window of having the comet in the right location and the first few minutes of twilight.
After sitting for a few photos, we ran back over to my camera so I could check out the images. I scrolled through and as soon as I saw it on the back of my camera, I couldn’t wait to see it on my computer.
You’ve said that you hope to express a sense of wonder in your photography. What does “wonder” mean to you and what experiences evoke it?
There’s something about being under a sky so full of stars that it takes all words from you. You look up and the number of stars just feels impossible. As you look from horizon to horizon and they seem endless. That moment, to me, is a pure moment of wonder.
No matter how many nights I spend under the stars, I still feel that way every time. It’s such an incredible feeling that it just drives me to try and find a way to capture and share it. I stand there and think about how I want other people to be able to experience this, too. So, while the entire process is something that I personally love, I truly hope it inspires other people to spend a night under the stars.
"No matter where we are in the world, we can look up and all look at the stars. I think that’s pretty special."
How has the pandemic impacted you and your work?
Because I haven’t been traveling and I’ve been limiting my local travel, I’ve spent more time thinking about the images I’m taking and sharing. It’s always been important to me that I can share a positive or helpful message with my work. Whether that’s creating photos with the intention of teaching people how to take them or just trying my best to share a happy story with them, it’s something I’ve been thinking more and more about.
Moving forward, I want to be able to share more stories behind some of the adventures of what goes into an image and what happens along the way.
Even though most of us are sticking closer to home these days, there are still plenty of ways to seek adventure—one easy way is to look up. What’s your advice for anyone who wants to try stargazing, especially if they live in or near a city?
Finding a planet in the night sky is something I will always love doing and highly suggest to others. They’re normally bright enough to spot even under heavily light polluted skies so they make for an awesome reward without having to go through crazy lengths to see. It’s a pretty awesome feeling when you see Jupiter or Venus in the sky and think how that little dot is another planet. Editor's Note: You can check out more winter stargazing tips from Jack here.
What’s your favorite thing about the night sky?
It’s something that we all share. No matter where we are in the world, we can look up and all look at the stars. I think that’s pretty special.
Jack and Kona checking out the bioluminescence in Big Sur, CA.
Is there anything else you want people to know about you or your work?
I once ate ice cream on a project when it was -36 degrees outside. I only did this because I thought it would be funny to be able to say, “I once ate ice cream when it was -36 outside” The ice cream wasn’t great, but I don’t regret it.
All photographs courtesy of Jack Fusco and used with permission.