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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Art Of Astrophotography

Capturing the heavens can be a rewarding and altogether unique form of outdoor photography

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Rowell finds solace in tracking and shooting the heavens, and his images are a combination of diligence, trial and error, and different techniques. These range from telescope adapters to long exposures with D-SLRs, giving him the power of instant feedback, benefitting the modern landscape photographer in the technically challenging realm of astrophotography.
This makes the film and D-SLR option better suited for wide-field images, whereas astrophotography CCDs perform better for single objects like planets with a narrower field of sky. I haven’t used an astrophotography CCD, but I’m definitely interested in this rapidly growing technology.

As you progress, be prepared to spend a considerable amount of money on your new tools. I’ve sold and traded several telescopes to upgrade my gear. I’m grateful to Sam Sweiss, the manager of Scope City in San Francisco, for sponsoring me with equipment over the years; his input and help have been enormously valuable. Besides my friends and family supporting me, another person who has helped me with my astrophotography has been architect/astronomer David Ta-Wei Lin.

While writing this article, I drove through Yosemite on my way home to Bishop and was fortunate to meet David Rodrigues, an astronomer known as the Astro-Wizard. In 1970, David and his team at the Chabot Observatory in Oakland, Calif., used a large telescope to help NASA navigate and bring Apollo 13 back safely to Earth after the moon-bound mission encountered technical difficulties. When I told him I was planning on doing some astrophotography that week, he invited me to join him and a few other scientists at the Barcroft High Altitude Research Station located in the White Mountains at 12,450 feet. Halfway through my drive the next evening, I drove past the bristlecone pine grove where a few months earlier I had captured one of my best images of the Milky Way combined with a tree that’s said to be over 4,000 years old.

After arriving at Barcroft, I met the group and then began aligning my scope with the north celestial pole. This was the best and darkest location I’ve photographed from, although I was surprised when the temperature dropped down to a chilling 25º. That night, I captured the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies on film using my father’s Nikon F100 with a 300mm ƒ/2.8 lens. The next day, a marine biologist/astronomer named Chris showed me his images taken with the new Nikon D700, and I was impressed with the image quality and the low amount of digital noise at higher ISOs. He was very pleased with the D700 and inspired me to buy one.

As I continue learning the art of astrophotography, I look forward to photographing many celestial events in the years to come, including new comets, eclipses and meteor showers!

Tony Rowell, son of renowned photographer Galen Rowell, is a photographer in his own right and has had his images published in books, calendars and magazines, including a few previous issues of OP. More of Tony’s images can be viewed on his website at www.tonyrowell.com.


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