Earthrise: the iconic photograph behind Earth Day

Why #Earthrise? The iconic photograph behind Earth Day's hashtag
Earthrise - shot by astronaut William Anders in 1968 from Apollo 8 (Image credit: William Anders/NASA)

Earth Day celebrates its 53rd birthday weekend. Since 1970, April 22 has become a day to reflect on the environment, and for people to share their concerns for the planet. Founded by a US senator, Earth Day has grown into a global phenomenon –with over a billion people expected to be engaged with the day across 190 countries.

We’d come 240,000 miles to see the moon and it was the Earth that was really worth looking at

William Anders

What you may not know, is that the term Earth Day gets its name from an iconic image of our planet shot by American astronaut William Anders in 1968. Called Earthwise, the image is one of the best known in the whole history of photography - and legendary landscape photographer Galen Rowell described it as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken".

The image was shot from Apollo 8, the first manned expedition to orbit the moon, on Christmas Eve. It partly was a matter of luck that Anders got the shot – as he was the one of the three astronauts onboard that was holding the camera loaded with color film, and fitted with a telephoto lens, as the Earth began to rise through the porthole.

William Anders (Image credit: Life Collection/Getty Images)

It was the wonder of seeing the beauty of our blue planet from out of space for the first time that made it such an iconic image. "Our Earth was quite colorful, pretty, and delicate compared to the very rough, rugged, beat-up, even boring lunar surface", reminisces Anders. "I think it struck everybody that here we’d come 240,000 miles to see the moon and it was the Earth that was really worth looking at."

The image itself was one of a series shot by Anders using a modified Hasselblad 500 EL medium format camera, fitted with a 250mm lens, and loaded with Kodak Ektachrome film; the exposure was 1/250sec at f/11.

"That one picture exploded in the consciousness of humans," said former US Vice President Al Gore. "It led to dramatic changes. Within 18 months of this picture the environment movement had begun."

Read more:

Astrophotography from your backyard
Best lenses for astrophotography
How and when to photograph the moon

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Chris George

Chris George has worked on Digital Camera World since its launch in 2017. He has been writing about photography, mobile phones, video making and technology for over 30 years – and has edited numerous magazines including PhotoPlus, N-Photo, Digital Camera, Video Camera, and Professional Photography. 

His first serious camera was the iconic Olympus OM10, with which he won the title of Young Photographer of the Year - long before the advent of autofocus and memory cards. Today he uses a Nikon D800, a Fujifilm X-T1, a Sony A7, and his iPhone 11 Pro.

He has written about technology for countless publications and websites including The Sunday Times Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, Dorling Kindersley, What Cellphone, T3 and Techradar.