Beauty of the Milky Way captured in a crystal ball

June 22, 2018, 9:34 a.m.

The magical properties ascribed crystal balls may be nothing more than the stuff of legend, but we're going to go ahead and call astronomer Juan Carlos Muñoz-Mateos a wizard anyways.

A self-described photo ambassador and operations staff astronomer at the European Southern Observatory in Santiago, Chile, Muñoz-Mateos recently captured one of the more unique views of our own Milky Way. As he described in a recent Instagram post, it all started with a trip to the local flea market.

"A few days ago I went for a stroll to the flea market in Barrio Lastarria, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Santiago," he wrote. "I stumbled upon this one stand selling all sorts of used artifacts, among which there were a bunch of crystal balls, and I couldn’t help buying one. For just a few bucks, this may very well have become my new favorite 'lens'!"

During an observation shift at the Paranal Observatory in Chile's Atacama Desert, Muñoz-Mateos placed the crystal ball on a handrail at the station's entrance, took out a Canon 6D with a Rokinon 24mm lens, and lined all three up.

The setup used by Juan Carlos Muñoz-Mateos to capture the Milky Way in a crystal ball. The setup used by Juan Carlos Muñoz-Mateos to capture the Milky Way in a crystal ball. (Photo: Courtesy of Juan Carlos Muñoz-Mateos)

"Once I nailed the focus on the stars within the ball, I had to decide which aperture to use, and after a few attempts I chose f/4," he added. "Smaller f-numbers yielded a too shallow depth of field: the edge of the ball was too blurry, and the bokeh of the background stars was too large, making it hard to discern the Milky Way. Larger f-numbers allowed very little light through, and also made the bokeh in the background smaller than I wanted."

After getting just the right balance between depth and light, Muñoz-Mateos opened the shutter for a 30-second shot and scored the magic he was looking for. His advice to anyone wanting to try something similar? Grab a crystal ball.

"If you have the chance to buy one of these cheap crystal balls, I totally recommend it," he wrote. "They’re really fun to use, and they can add a very original spin to your photography. I already have a few crazy ideas in mind for future images. Stay tuned!"