Saturday, July 26, 2014

Selected Regions of The Milky Way

In my previous post I wrote of my project to photograph selected areas of the Milky Way based on the original idea that Edward Emerson Barnard proposed and implemented on the summit of Mount Wilson in 1905.

I am glad to say that the first round was successful.  I spent several hours shooting the Milky Way from my home in Maine during the dark hours of  June 21st through July 1st.  I lost much sleep and had a few difficult days at work due to the late hour required on these summer evenings / mornings. In the end it was worth it.

I performed several test frames to get perfect infinity focus then dove into the lonely hours of exposing and guiding.  Dodging mosquitoes to my person and fireflies from the exposing film, it was a feat of labor and determination.  The frames below are the fruit of those labors.

Of technical note, all exposures ran about 40-50 minutes at apertures of f/4.8 and f/5.6.  A Tiffen Haze filter was installed in the tail end filter holder on the 400mm f/4 SMC Takumar to reduce the secondary spectrum common on these conventional glass lenses.  Exposures with and without the filter was dramatic.  Star images were much tighter even though overall the filter may reduce contrast and overall sharpness.  Some reflections were noted but were rather minor.  Fuji Neopan Acros was used for image acquisition.  Chosen due to its exemplary reciprocity characteristics and fine grain.  The films were custom processed in Xtol developer by Color Services in Needham Massachusetts.

Post processing was done by converting the original negatives to digital files via an Epson V600 scanner.  Adjustments to levels and curves were completed with Adobe Photoshop.

This image portrays the individual frames below against the wider field

Messier 22 Region in Sagittarius

The Scutum Star Cloud

The Small Sagittarius Star Cloud

The Dark Nebulae in Ophiuchus

The Great Sagittarius Star Cloud

The Dark Lanes in Ophiuchus

The Southern Scutum Star Cloud

There were a few more images but I have yet to work them up for posting.  So happy to be able to share the results with you and produce at least one more time a portfolio of images captured by traditional means.  The time spent under the stars, manually correcting the guiding along the way and taking in the quiet nights allowed me to capture, albeit imperfectly, the spirit of the great E.E. Barnard.  

Friday, July 4, 2014

Recapturing E.E. Barnard's Legacy

The Father of Milky Way photography, Edward Emerson Barnard systematically photographed the Milky Way on what was the yet to be developed Mount Wilson in 1905.  The images taken that year were to be published in A Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of The Milky Way.  This seminal work was a reference for decades and still provides inspiration to wide-field astrophotographers today.

Barnard recalls how the project got started.

"Through the interest and courtesy of Professor George E. Hale and the generosity of Mr. John D.
Hooker, of Los Angeles, I spent the spring and summer of 1905 in photographic work at the Solar Observatory of the Carnegie Institution on Mount Wilson, California. Mr. Hooker’s generous grant
made it possible to transport the Bruce telescope to Mount Wilson, where it was installed from
February until September, 1905, in a temporary wooden structure, from which the roof could be slid
off, giving an unbroken view of the sky. The altitude of the station was about 5,900 feet, above the
sea, and its latitude 34°13 .  The main object of this expedition to Mount Wilson wasto secure
the best possible photographs of the Milky Way as far south as the latitude would permit."

The Bruce Observatory with roll-off roof  featuring the 10" Photographic Telescope in 1905.

University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [ apf6-01621r], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

The photographic instrument was four instruments in one.  The 10-inch and 6.25-inch photographic telescopes, and a 3.5 -inch doublet and lantern lens as well as a guiding telescope. First exposures began on January 27th and ended in September of that same year, 1905.  Barnard spent almost the whole period on the mountain, except on one occasion to go into town to obtain the services of a notary and barber.   Barnard was famous for being a workaholic at the telescope, possibly due to his drive to be the second to none in his capabilities.  Long gone were his childhood days of poverty and the opportunity to be the best was not wasted.

Barnard at the helm of the Bruce instrument.

University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf6-04469r, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

Plate 27- The Great Sagittarius Star Cloud 

July 6.815 1905
3 Hour 58 Minute exposure
Barnard's exposures of the Milky Way typically lasted 4 to 5 hours.  Barnard would correct the instruments guiding as the cameras panned across the open landscape counteracting the earth's motion.  The long hours of photography "Would have horrified any medical man" Walter S. Adams recalled in his recollection of Barnard's sleepless nights, "Sleep he considered a sheer waste of time, and for long intervals would forget it altogether. After observing until midnight, he would drink a large quantity of coffee, work the remainder of the night, develop his photographs, and then join the solar observers at breakfast. The morning he would spend in washing his plates, which was done by successive changes of water, since running water was not yet available. On rare occasions he would take a nap in the afternoon, but usually he would spend the time around his telescope. He liked to sing, although far from gifted in the art, but reserved his singing for times when he was feeling particularly cheerful. Accordingly, when we at the Monastery heard various doleful sounds coming down the slope from the direction of the Bruce telescope, we knew that everything was going well and that the seeing was good."

My admiration of Barnard's work hearkens back to my younger days when I was starting out in astrophotography.  Those then famous black and white images of the Milky Way were the stuff of dreams to a young astronomer wanting to explore the night sky.  It seemed any photographic reference to the Milky Way's structure turned to Barnard's work as they were still the standard reference on the subject, in spite of other surveys such as POSS and POSS-II being more recent but much narrower photographic fields.

Fast forward to 2014.  How was I to symbolically and in a very real way reproduce some of Barnard's efforts?  In 2011, I performed some tests with Fuji Acros, a black and white negative film that has the best reciprocity characteristics of any film in history.  It showed itself to be very capable of long exposure work, but lacked the red sensitivity often desired for astronomical use.  The lack of red sensitivity does not hinder star cloud and dark nebulae photography however.  I performed many successful exposures with various focal length lenses, with the 200mm and 300mm focal length lens coming close to the Barnard photos in field size and depth, but I would get much closer and a similar field size with a 400mm lens.

Guiding analog cameras under a dark sky and monitoring the guide star in a double cross-hair reticle eyepiece, making small corrections in the clock drive and for atmospherics reflects similarly what Barnard used for techniques.  Manual guiding is something that adds to the experience as the pioneers such as Barnard used this laborious technique to get the job done.  Making these images is so much more than shooting film to replicate the historical work, but the experiences under the night using very basic technology.

Further testing in 2012 revealed remarkable image capability of medium format film and camera system.

Messier 8 Region @ 200mm

Southern Ophiuchus @ 200mm

The Scutum Star Cloud @ 200mm

The 400mm f/4 medium format lens produces a similar field size (8x10 degrees) to Mount Wilson's Bruce Photographic Telescope.  I was not to use glass plates 14x18 inches like the Bruce instrument used, but a relatively small piece of photographic film 2.25 x 2.75 inches in size.

In June of 2014, I had acquired and mounted such a lens for the project.  The 400mm f/4 Super-Multi-Coated TAKUMAR for the Pentax 67 was dubbed, the "Mini-Bruce". 

The 400mm f/4 "Mini-Bruce" Astrograph rides atop my classic 8" Meade

I built a personal observatory, much like Barnard's 1905 Mount Wilson setup in 2003.  It has good exposure to the southern sky, despite my 44.5 degree north Latitude. This gives me access to most of the sky Barnard had.  Flanders Pond Observatory has been a useful photo-visual laboratory.  Its showing its age and will be needing maintenance of replacement soon.  If I can get just a few more years out of it!

Inside the roll off roof, the "Mini-Bruce" ready for action on a clear dark night.

The summer weather will determine just how successful this project turns out to be.  I am hopeful.  To fall in the footsteps of the master is a privilege.  I would so love to have met Mr. Barnard.  His story and images have been an inspiration for many but, I consider myself to be the number one fan of the man from Tennessee.

Permissions for reproduction of images of Plate 27 as follows: 

Georgia Institute of Technology Library and Information Center, Great Star Clouds in Sagittarius - 2, Plate 27, Edward Emerson Barnard's Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way, June 2004, Georgia Institute of Technology, June 14, 2014

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Analog and Digital: A Truce

My brief flirtation with digital has gained me perspective on image acquisition and overall acceptance of what each method has to offer.  Digital is seductive, an easy path, and perhaps the best method for image capture. Analog astrophotography is all but dead with very few practitioners, and perhaps justifiably so,  but the subtle, aesthetic qualities of film keep me coming back to that medium.

Analog astrophotography in the 21st Century is as good as it ever was if you had the presence of mind to store the proper emulsions while they were still available, but the clock is ticking on frozen stocks as they will still be limited to about ten years, more so if using silver based products. Presently available materials such as Fuji Acros will be around awhile yet, but the rug on this fine film could be pulled anytime.

Folks see digital work coming from my photostream and wonder if even I too have given up on the craft.  My work will use the two technologies suited to their strengths.  Digital offers mastery of brief exposures at high ISO, film offers mastery over very long single exposures at low ISO materials given medium and large formats.  Digital RAW files give unprecedented flexibility in image editing.  Analog is less forgiving; you must nail it the first time.  For the experienced analog photographer, this is not a problem.

So why film?  For me it is simple.  I grew up with film, love it's aesthetic, and the process.  My negatives and positives contain captured starlight.  In a very real way, a literal way.  It's photo-chemical.  There is an original image.  This is a powerful difference to me.  A file of one's and zero's is symbolically captured starlight, it's signature only.  Being able to go back to the original in tangible form is without equal, as imperfect as it may be.

There is room for both. When making art, I prefer film.  For documentary work, digital is no question, the best. Digital mavens declare analog photographers as almost religious zealots and Luddites.  Fair enough.  I believe we feel strongly about our craft, a craft that was suddenly (within the last twenty years) replaced with a whole different process.  Gone, were the darkrooms, the smelly chemicals, the boxes of negatives, the slideshows.

Being a hybrid photographer, this allows me the best of both worlds - film exposures and digital scans.  Originals with many of the digital workflow advantages.  The more accurate the exposure on film (even if it is for hours), the less "noise" it contains, the only noise is from the scanning process. Here, the limiting factor of film is in the scanning process, as it seems something is always lost here.

For stop action Milky Way landscapes, it's digital all the way.  For majestic Milky Way wide-field photography, certainly film provides my medium of choice.

The vistas of the Northern Milky Way on analog materials

Sunday, May 25, 2014


The recent buzz of a possible great meteor shower Friday night / Saturday morning kept us all in anticipation of clear skies. It did not look good, but eastern Maine, specifically coastal Hancock County enjoyed clear skies all night long. The question was then whether the shower would pan out.

Early on I spotted what appeared to be a brilliant meteor exiting the constellation Camelopardalis. The night looked promising. The time since that 10 o'clock hour produced nary a trace of any members of the Camelopardalids. The night had a lack of meteors in general.

The dark and starry night still had gems to behold and one phenomena in general was putting on a decent show. Green colored airglow is the result of oxygen atoms roughly 60 miles high in the extreme upper atmosphere excited by ultraviolet radiation during the daytime.   The glow can be seen by astronauts in Earth's orbit and by stargazers with keen vision under dark skies.

Below is an example of green airglow and the Milky Way early Saturday morning as revealed by long exposure photography.

I noted it visually.  It appeared as large pale white patches of light against a darker sky. The camera sees the green light, but human eyes cannot detect color in such low light conditions as the rods, responsible for night vision do not detect color.

So dark skies are not always dark, indeed the whole front yard of my home seemed "bright".  My Sky Quality Meter read 21.6 Mags/Sq-Arc-sec, that's pretty dark.  The Milky Way was well structured and the dark nebulae in Ophiuchus were not a challenge at all.

These "bright nights" commonly occur during high solar activity, so visual and photographic observations in the coming Solar Minima will enjoy darker skies, a few years away, but it's not too early to start planning.

Airglow veils the Milky Way

Sunday, May 4, 2014


The long winter had taken its toll on millions here in the northeast, lasting longer than we had hoped for.  Springtime is now upon us and a freshness is in the air, a time for waking as if from a long slumber.  

A long pause can change the outlook of an individual.  A long hard look at things almost always creates change.  Last year's hardships and the near death winter brings to the landscape makes the vernal season especially poignant. 

Nightfly Photography and this blog are no longer exclusively about analog astrophotography.  A change derived from a hard look at all things that matter to me and a new found freedom of expression in my work. For 35 years astronomy as an endeavor has been my life's avocation; astrophotography, an expression of the experience.  Last years wake-up call spun me out of control as I faced an episode of mortality.  The work I had hoped to capture before becoming inanimate is now before me.  I lay the groundwork for the finest hour, a positive outlook for creativity in various forms.  

Our short tenure in the immensity of time is too brief to not be engaged fully in what you love and the various ways of expressing that love.  Writing, photography, poetry, all expressions of the human endeavor to celebrate our existence is this grand universe.  Perhaps that is a lofty goal.  Lofty or not, it is simply the ideal I will strive for.  

Furthermore, the discussion will not be simply about technique or equipment.  We will have time for that.  There will be more about the images themselves and how they strike us, how they are internalized.  We will discuss authors, poets, and artists, as well as science, philosophy, and the humanities, mostly within the context of the human response to visual and modern photographic interpretations.

May Morning Milky Way
A few mornings ago, the skies had cleared allowing an opportunity, if one was willing to leave a warm bed, to observe and photograph our summer Milky Way.  I have been experimenting with my new digital camera and fast wide-angle lens.  Utilizing the equatorial mount in the observatory to piggyback the arrangement, I was able to capture, among others, the above image.

I was flabbergasted by how vivid the images were, owing to the dark skies at my home in eastern Maine.  I felt like a writer who had just found the right words for an expression, a singer for a song.  The sky was as dark as it had been in the last few years with Sky Quality Meter reading of 21.6 Mags/Sq-Arc-Sec at the zenith.  Even towards the horizon, the various dark nebulae in Ophiuchus were instantly obvious.  The Great Star Cloud in Sagittarius blazed brightly, illuminating anything painted white in my front yard, not the least, my home.  Perhaps eyesight is not as good over 40, but I was seeing beyond what normally would be considered average for a dark rural sky.  My south horizon does not look over any communities, indeed it looks out over mostly ocean.  That's good if we are shooting in that direction as the above photo testifies.  

I am glad I left the comfort of my bed to witness what is perhaps the grandest object we can behold. The summer Milky Way.  It ratifies an agreement made years ago, to forego living in the city for a lifestyle devoted to being in the simple presence of the majestic.  The limitations of that choice are plentiful, but that decision has always been upheld as I return to bed when twilight strikes my pillow.