Earth Restored — Toby Ord


Some recent spacecraft, en route to distant parts of the solar system, turned their cameras back towards Earth as they departed. In some cases, they were perfectly positioned for the shot. But they never had the right cameras. Their cameras were designed for their scientific missions, not for the opportunistic photograph. Heroic measures can be taken, such as treating their infrared channel as red and ultraviolet as blue, but lead to very unnatural, sometimes garish, renderings of our planet.

Finally, there are the composite images. These recent views of the Earth are computer-generated images, stitched together from many photographs taken from orbits that are too close to provide a synoptic view. These synthetic images are more like illustrations of the Earth for an atlas than photographs, often with unnatural colours or perspectives.

Only APOLLO

To find truly great photographs of the Earth — portraits of our planet — we have to go back to the 1960s and 70s. The Apollo program, with its nine journeys to the Moon, is the only time humans have ever been beyond low Earth orbit; the only opportunity they have had to take photographs of the whole Earth. They did not waste it. With great foresight, NASA equipped the astronauts with some of the best cameras ever made — specially modified Hasselblads, with Zeiss lenses, and 70mm Kodak Ektachrome film. But with the custom modifications, these were not easy to use. The cameras had no viewfinders or range finders, just a simple sighting ring. Composition, focus, and exposure came down to a mix of intuition and guesswork.

Camera — heavily modified Hasselblad 500 EL
Lens — Zeiss Planar 𝑓-2.8/80mm, Zeiss Sonnar 𝑓-5.6/250mm
Film — 70mm Kodak Ektachrome (Colour), and Panatomic-X (BW)

The photographs they took changed the course of history. Iconic images, such as ‘Earthrise’ and ‘The Blue Marble’ showed us our fragile planet, kindling the nascent spirit of environmentalism. And the outside perspective, looking down on all humanity, accentuated our unity, making our Cold War divisions seem petty and small.

These two photographs are among the most famous and widely distributed in history. Yet when I sought beautiful high resolution versions I was disappointed. Each available image was marred by low resolution, bad image compression, blown out highlights, or washed out colours. These were the defining photographs of our time, the best representations of our fragile Earth — but they were neglected; mistreated.

So I went deeper, seeking out the originals. The photographic film from the Apollo missions has been extremely well preserved — stored for posterity in a freezer within NASA’s archives. The original film (and several analog duplicates) have been digitally scanned several times over the years. And to my delight many of the raw scans were accessible online.