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Time-Lapse Photography Creates An Illuminated Night Sky

A new series shows how photography captures the passing of time by tracing flight and star patterns.

The last time we heard from Ajay Malghan, he'd been inspired by the magnificent architecture in Hong Kong and New York. In his series Vertical Density, the Washington D.C.-based artist created a series of layered, multiple exposure photos featuring skyscrapers and clouds, guiding the viewer to look up, resulting in a surreal experience—and almost creating a reverse vertigo effect.

With his latest project, Passing Through, he's still calling attention to the sky. This time, however, he switched his muse. He put buildings aside and instead focused on planes and stars. Years in the making, Passing Through captures the light trails of planes and stars across the world.


Have you ever wished on a star only to find out it was a plane? Man-made versus natural, light versus dark, stillness versus movement—Malghan’s images speak to these kinds of tensions and ask these kinds of questions. But these photos find a resolution in these opposing strains, and looking at them feels immediately calming, and almost magical—like the exuberant randomness of a shooting star.

In Vertical Density, Malghan used a film camera, but for this project, he went digital. He looked for a clear night, and then used increments of one-minute exposures. To finish, he stacked the images in Photoshop.

“The interesting thing about using this technique is you can see through presence and absence how much movement occurs during the exposures,” he explained.

“The one second gaps during which the shutter closes, allow you to see how much the airplanes move in one second. Through absence in space, the images show how photography is a marker of time in the most literal way.”

While the landscapes and light path of every location is different, they all feel mesmerizing—a little bit mysterious, and a little bit romantic. Over a Darnestown, Maryland field we see lines darting, creating almost Spirograph, circle-within-a-circle shapes—created in an exposure totaling of a 60 minutes. In Washington D.C., the light looks like a firework exploding over a body of water, reflecting onto it just like the city lights on the ground below, which also totaled to a 60 minute exposure. Some of the other settings include Hong Kong, Oakland, Baltimore, Foster City, and Atlanta—with their own abstracts, from 45 total minute exposures to 120 total minute exposures, ranging from what might look like explosions, to a Picasso-esque light painting, to electric alien rain.


Malghan’s experimental work forces us to realize that even when we think we are still, we are always moving. Even if we don’t move our bodies, the plane we’re on is taking us somewhere, or—larger picture—the earth is always revolving, taking us with her.

If photography is writing with light, in a novel, Passing Through would be a scene break—three asterisks on the page—to mark the passage of time with stars.

All images courtesy of Ajay Malghan Photography. You can read more about Malghan's past work here.