Commander Chris Hadfield says goodbye to the International Space Station through the medium of David Bowie

Highest music video since Snoop Dogg's last one.

Commander Chris Hadfield – the Canadian astronaut who has spent the last five months acting as a sort of ambassador from space to the internet, tweeting, tumbling and YouTubing the wonders of zero-g living – is preparing to leave the International Space Station. At eight minutes past midnight tonight (UK time), the Soyuz capsule returning him, US astronaut Tom Marshburn and Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko to earth will undock, and two and a half hours later it will begin its descent towards the Kazakhstani steppes where it is planned to land. If everything goes according to the plan, it will touch down at 3:31am on Tuesday morning.

There's a lot for Commander Hadfield to do between now and then, which is why his goodbye video went up 24 hours in advance. Written by David Bowie, performed (largely) in space by Commander Chris Hadfield, it's a Space Oddity:

Hadfield is a mean musician; here's his (earthbound) performance of Ride On from earlier this year, and here's him playing his low-weight guitar on the Russian space-station Mir in 1995. If you need something to boost you on an overcast Monday morning, try watching the rest of his videos from space.

Videos from space. Can't say that enough, really.

The International Space Station. Photograph: Getty Images/NASA

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Anna Leszkiewicz
Show Hide image

Why doesn't falling snow show up on your phone camera?

And while we're at it, why can't you take a good picture of the moon?

If snow falls on the ground and no one sees it on Instagram, did it really happen?

The answer to that question is a firm “No”, much to the chagrin of social media users around the United Kingdom today. There will be no flurry of Likes to accompany today’s flurry of snow, as one by one we each realise it is damned impossible to take a good picture of falling snow on our phone cameras.

 

A photo posted by Mamá 2.0 (@mama2punto0) on

The question is, why?

“All photography is dependent on light irrespective of camera type,” says Matthew Hawkins, a senior lecturer in photography at The University of the Arts, London. “Snowflakes usually fall in times of low contrast and relatively low levels of light.

“This increases the duration of exposure which becomes too long to freeze the motion of an inherently translucent flake.”

So it seems that, provided you’re not trying to shoot on a Nokia 3310, it might not actually be your phone that is the problem. In recent years phone cameras have become incredibly advanced, and the World Photography Organisation even has awards for mobile phone photos.

That said, phone cameras are obviously less advanced than expensive, professional DSLRs, and a lot of digital cameras actually have a “snow mode”, designed to help with the lighting issues that occur when photographing bright, white snow. "Snow scenes generally tend to come out underexposed, so exposure compensation (adding more stops) is usually needed and the automatic settings within a phone camera don't compensate for this," says James Jones, a freelance photographer.

Lauren Winsor, a photography lecturer at Kingston University, adds: “The shutter simply isn’t quick enough to freeze the majority of falling snow. It’s therefore either lost to near invisible motion blur or rendered as inelegant white, out of focus blobs.”

Given that your iPhone is currently trying to catch up with a theatre mode, it’s no wonder that it’s not really designed for the complexities of snow.

But if – as Hawkins says – these problems occur with fancy cameras as well as your phone, then why are your snow photos so underwhelming?

The answer to the question might actually be the answer to life’s many questions: you’re just not very good.

 

A photo posted by kayleepaterson94 (@ironcreature94) on

When I ask Lewis Bush, a photography lecturer (who is currently working on a project that uses satellite imagery for another perspective on the refugee crisis), why it’s so hard to capture a good picture of falling snow, he says it’s isn’t “if you know how”.

Multiple online guides have sprung up to help you get this knowledge, and Paul Moore, of iphonephotographyschool.com offers eight tips for the perfect wintery photo. “Depending on the light and the weather, snow can take on different color hues or even end up a dull gray color,” he writes, advising that it can instead be fixed in editing. A simple black and white filter or a photo editing app can change everything.

And while you’re here, what about nature’s other trickiest photography subject, the humble moon? Bush has advice for any amateur phone photographers looking to capture the big cheese. “The moon is hard, so shoot with manual exposure controls if your phone has them, you could also try using telephoto adaptors that clip on to your phone camera or even borrowing a telescope and shooting through it,” he says.

But if the snow continues to fall and you can't afford a swanky camera, what on earth should you do next?

“Shoot towards something dark,” says Bush. “White snow isn’t like to appear very well on a white background, and use a flash if it’s dark.

“Also, maybe question whether the world really needs more photographs of snow?”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.