Photography is part of an astronaut’s job description and the results produce a fantastic record of the Earth and its surroundings from hundreds of miles away.

But taking photos in space is not just done for artistic merit, nor is it anything like taking them down here, for a start photographers have to snap at speeds of almost five miles (8km) per second.

American Don Pettit is a chemical engineer and NASA astronaut and has created photos during his expeditions aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

His first space flight was aboard the space shuttle Endeavour in 2002 and he has now spent over a year of his life on the ISS. His images are part of a scientific log of more than 14 years; as of July 2012 about 1.2 million pictures had been taken.

SmugMug Films have just released a video about how Don goes about capturing such breath-taking representations of the Earth.

His work includes some of the planet's most well-known phenomena – aurora, star trails and city lights – taken from his unique perspective aboard the ISS.

Don’s star-trails pick up stars going in circles around the ISS as it orbits the Earth, he also sees cities as they move by and what scientists call 'air glow', a glowing part of the Earth’s atmosphere that can’t be seen with the naked eye from Earth.

“When you take a timed exposure, the green glow shows up quite vividly,” says Don. “In some pictures it almost looks like a slice of key lime pie that got flopped on the edge of Earth and its scale height is about 100 km.”

Astronaut photographers have to find out the best ways to take pictures of the Earth and are able to make discoveries about the types of things that can be viewed or identified from space.

Such findings can then be used to programme satellites to take more frequent images.

Don’s pictures from space can be combined with data from other spacecraft and from Earth to help scientists understand different phenomena.

Polar mesospheric clouds, also known as noctilucent clouds, are an example of where this is being applied.

They are clouds found on the fringes of space, but the reason why they form largely remains a mystery.

Don says his favourite subject is the Earth at night.

“Aurora is just amazingly beautiful. It’s this glowing upper part of the atmosphere that crawls around like amoebas in the sky,” he says.

“And cities at night. The way human beings sprinkle their light bulbs around is a fascinating statement on how we as human beings define our urban areas.

“There’s a lot of things you can learn about human beings in the way that they sprinkle their lights out at night.”

Life aboard the ISS isn't entirely geared up for photo shoots, some of the windows are designed for photography but others are more for engineering observations and point toward the solar panels and the robotic arm.

The cupola's windows look towards Earth so photographers keep between six to eight cameras with different lenses there, luckily in weightlessness they don't require tripods.

"You’re moving at 8km a second – that’s faster than a speeding bullet. And Earth goes by really quickly," Don says.

"If you’re using a long lens, you need fast shutter speeds. You also need to compensate by panning the camera along the axis of station to cancel out orbital motion."

Don describes his home planet as looking “amazingly beautiful” from space.

“You can see things on the length scale of half a continent,” he explains.

However he argues that it is just as stunning back on terra firma.

“We find Earth from space exceptionally beautiful because we’re so polarized to the natural beauty around us when we’re walking on Earth,” he says.

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