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Photographer takes stunning images of nebulas and galaxies — all from light-polluted downtown Chicago

“A few years ago it would’ve been unthinkable to shoot astrophotography here,” Gian Lorenzo Ferretti said. “You can still do something really cool, even if you’re in one of the most like light-polluted cities in the U.S.”

Image of the Elephant Trunk Nebula, captured by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti from downtown Chicago and posted on his Instagram on June 19.
Image of the Elephant Trunk Nebula, captured by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti from downtown Chicago and posted on his Instagram on June 19
Courtesy of Gian Lorenzo Ferretti

Downtown Chicago’s light pollution makes it nearly impossible to see stars in the night sky, yet Gian Lorenzo Ferretti can see nebulas thousands of light years away while standing right on his balcony in the heart of the city.

Since November, Ferretti has been posting his astrophotography on his Instagram (@gianlorenzo_photography), capturing vibrant images of nebulas and galaxies with his telescope from his home in University Village.

“A lot of the people that follow me thought I was photoshopping the photos or creating them on my own,” He said. “I’m not making anything up.”

A wide-angle view of the Crescent Nebula, captured by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti on July 2 in downtown Chicago.
A wide-angle view of the Crescent Nebula, captured by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti on July 2 in downtown Chicago.
Courtesy of Gian Lorenzo Ferretti

While he works as an architectural photographer, he has always been passionate about astrophotography even before he knew much about it.

Ferretti captures the pictures using narrow-band filters on his telescopes, the same kind of filters NASA uses on the Hubble Space Telescope, he said. The filters allow narrow light wavelengths to pass through, cutting out all light pollution. They then isolate the gas emissions of the nebula he targets, allowing him to capture these photos.

“A few years ago it would’ve been unthinkable to shoot astrophotography here,” he said. “You can still do something really cool, even if you’re in one of the most light-polluted cities in the U.S.”

Image of the Pelican Nebula, taken by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti from University Village and posted on his Instagram May 21.
Image of the Pelican Nebula, taken by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti from University Village and posted on his Instagram May 21.
Courtesy of Gian Lorenzo Ferretti

However, capturing these photos in such great detail is not easy. Each picture he posts requires six to seven hours of shooting per night and over up to a week of shooting. Ferretti aligns his telescope with Polaris, and his mount tracks the target as it moves through the sky.

After collecting hundreds of images, Ferretti uses software to combine them and bring out all the details in a singular image. Each photo requires up to 60 gigabytes of data and several hours of computer processing, he said.

“Once you process all the photos and the details come to life, it is so rewarding, even if it took you a lot of hours and you missed out on some serious sleep,” Ferretti said.

Image of the Rosette Nebula, captured by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti in University Village and posted on his Instagram on March 3.
Image of the Rosette Nebula, captured by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti in University Village and posted on his Instagram on March 3.
Courtesy of Gian Lorenzo Ferretti

He uses a variety of different telescopes, his largest being 1,000 millimeters. He is able to use smaller lenses to get some of his photos as well, the smallest comparable to the ones used for wedding photoshoots, he said.

The response from fellow Chicagoans has been amazing, although he was originally met with some skeptics. Since then, he has heard from many photographers who are shocked to realize astrophotography is a possibility for them living in such a large city.

Ferretti did not realize astrophotography would be possible when he moved to Chicago two years ago. When he used to live in Minneapolis, Ferretti would drive out of the Twin Cities to a secluded area and shoot amateur photos of the Milky Way.

Image of the Crescent Nebula, captured by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti in University Villiage and posted on his Instagram May 18.
Image of the Crescent Nebula, captured by Gian Lorenzo Ferretti in University Villiage and posted on his Instagram May 18.
Courtesy of Gian Lorenzo Ferretti

He said he missed being able to shoot the stars when he moved, but he quickly learned about the concept of narrow-band filters from the internet

He bought a telescope from fellow Instagram photographer Dawn Lowry, who takes her own pictures from Indianapolis. Lowry taught Ferretti how to set up the narrow-band filters and how to use the software and telescopes, mentoring him through the process, Ferretti said.

“Astrophotography requires an immense amount of dedication, and he has been able to learn in such a short period of time the ins and out of it,” Lowry said.

Lowry also taught Ferretti about some of the limitations of taking photos with narrow-band filters, which can only capture certain types of gas and nebulas. In November, Lowry and Ferretti will travel to Texas to an area with almost no light pollution whatsoever, she said.

Ferretti will soon be pointing his camera at the skies over Florida, where he moved over the weekend. While he said he will miss Chicago, his new home will give him the opportunity to shoot broadband targets, such as certain galaxies and planets, which cannot be captured from here.

“It’s encouraging people to try things out, and even in really light-polluted cities you can get some great photos,” he said. “It really shows you how small we are. There is a whole universe surrounding us.”

Gian Lorenzo Ferretti at his home in University Village, on the balcony where he takes his astrophotographs.
Gian Lorenzo Ferretti at his home in University Village, on the balcony where he takes his astrophotographs.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times