A child of the 60’s, I lived through the sheer miracles of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I recall looking at astronomical images in the “How and Why Wonderbooks” before I could read. A family friend’s homemade 6″ Newtonian reflector provided my first telescopic view of Saturn in the 70’s, and of course, that memory remains as fresh today. In my high school graduation speech I speculated about “commencement ceremonies” on other planets — even back then I was convinced in the overwhelming probability of intelligent life beyond earth (the Drake Equation rules!) Astronomy, astrophysics, astrobiology, and cosmology — these were subjects to be contemplated, debated, and enjoyed as relatively passive “armchair” pursuits. Funny, but I never seriously considered them as career choices (I eventually became a neurologist). On the other hand, I would have loved venturing into amateur astrophotography, but in the 70’s it was a rather tedious and crude discipline (“stone knives and bear skins” comes to mind) with less than “stellar” results — in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t. Quality astrophotography was still the purview of large observatories …and that’s the way it remained for several decades…
Fast forward to the mid-90’s — the digital revolution was in full swing, and techniques in digital photography catalyzed the development of various hardware and software that catapulted astrophotography into the future at warp speed. As an astronomy enthusiast and lifelong amateur photographer, I jumped at the opportunity to learn these new techniques and photograph that which had mesmerized me for years. Without any formal training in astronomy, optics, or digital processing, I found the learning curve quite steep, and failure reigned supreme many a night (and day). I was still a complete neophyte when I announced to my wife in late 1997 that time constraints “forced” me to construct a permanent astronomical observatory in the backyard — in this manner my equipment would be ready at a moment’s notice, saving hours each night. Violet “returned the favor” when she accompanied me to pick up a new 12.5″ “RC” telescope from John Stiles at OGS — “I just want to meet the man who is taking my children’s inheritance.”
Astrophotography remains just a hobby, although anything but a passive pursuit — it might as well be a career, given the time and energy I have devoted over the past 20+ years. The “practice” of astrophotography (like medicine, it remains a practice) aims to produce the highest quality images of celestial phenomena in a manner that enlightens our frontal lobes and provides eye candy for our occipital lobes. It’s a curious blend of art and science — some might call it “scientific art”, others an “artful representation of science”, but I like the term “aesthetic imaging” to describe what I (and others) try to accomplish. Like the practice of medicine, there are “subspecialties” — some of us concentrate on terrestrial landscapes that feature dazzling views of the Milky Way, some only image the moon (the “lunatics”), some are planetary fanatics, and some are solar seekers…I am a deep sky devotee — I mainly image distant galaxies as well as the nebulae and star clusters within our own galaxy (though I have tried my hand at the other disciplines as well). Amateurs using modern digital techniques can easily surpass the quality of astroimages coming from professional observatories in the film era. Of course, I will never match the quality obtained by an extra-terrestrial telescope — the Hubble produces fantastic images because it “sees” in the vacuum of space, without the image degradation caused by our turbulent atmosphere. Don’t feel bad for me, though — on a quality vs cost basis, I beat the Hubble every time! I still can’t believe many of the images on this site were captured from my backyard in a light polluted suburb outside of Philadelphia.
The data for several of the images was acquired “remotely” in 2006-2008 from an amazing astroimaging site known as New Mexico Skies. Most of my long focal length imaging (galaxies and smaller nebulae) since then was/is also via remote capture from a professional observatory complex in Chile known as Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. CTIO has the perfect combination of site darkness and “seeing” (atmospheric steadiness) — it is an astrophotographer’s dream come true, and I cherish the opportunity to image from one of the best locations on planet earth!
The art and science of astrophotography is quite complex, and defies any simple explanations. What you are capable of accomplishing depends on your knowledge base, your equipment, and your skies. Knowledge is easy to acquire — there are tons of YouTubes videos for beginners covering both equipment and processing. Warren Keller, my SSRO partner, offers online learning through his IP4AP website. Equipment can be costly, and guidance from someone more experienced is necessary before you buy to ensure that your purchase makes sense for YOU. The biggest single barrier to successful imaging is the quality of the skies in your backyard — more than likely, there is at least a moderate degree of light pollution, combined with unsteady air (“poor seeing”). The good news is that you can do “widefield narrowband imaging” — this technique basically laughs at the light pollution and poor seeing! Furthermore, you can start learning how to process images long before you ever spend a dime on equipment (free raw data is available for download). Some advanced imagers have long since parted ways with their equipment, and now just rely on data acquired at one of several remote observatories located in geographic regions where light pollution is minimal (especially Chile!)
My images have appeared in many print magazines and online publications over the years, including on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day website. Other highlights of my astrophotography “career” include the following (this is to show my wife her children’s inheritance was put to good use):
…July 1998 — Dedication of MYHY Observatory (named in honor of my parents). Here are additional images from the construction of the dome and also the party we had to celebrate the occasion. A short time thereafter, I pose with Violet and Sean (1 year old!) inside of the dome.
…Summer/Fall 1998 — First images with a Meade LX200 and Meade Pictor 416 CCD camera (unguided) — in those days I didn’t know a black point from a white point.
…August 2002 — First couple of images of which I am quasi-proud — M57 and M51 with the LX200 and SBIG ST10XME/AO7.
…August 2006 — Philadelphia area amateurs Bob Benamati, Jim Misti, and I conceive, plan, and host the East Coast Conference on Astronomical Imaging — it’s a great success, but alas, a “one hit wonder”.
…2007-present — I join SSRO (Star Shadows Remote Observatory) and begin imaging from New Mexico and later, Chile. I remain an active SSRO member to date. Membership has its privileges — access to fantastic imaging locales, and a chance to form great friendships with my SSRO partners. Please see the websites from my partners, Warren Keller, Mark Hanson, and Rex Parker.
…Beautiful Universe 2007 — M45 (The Pleiades) takes 3rd place in an astrophotography contest.
…September 2008 — The “Bucks County Courier Times” profiles me in an article about astrophotography in their Sunday “Life” section.
…October 2008 — The Philadelphia Inquirer also profiles me in their Sunday “Health & Science” section.
…November 2008 — Trip to CTIO with Jack Harvey and Rick Gilbert; we meet Daniel Verschatse in Chile (who serves impeccably as our host, guide, and source of transportation).
…2008-2010 — I am a visiting scholar in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UNC Chapel Hill.
…Summer 2009 — In a radical departure from their usual subject matter, Bucks County Town and Country Living magazine makes me the subject of their cover story.
…April 2009 — I lecture on remote imaging at NEAIC. This also includes a live remote imaging demonstration from Chile — live demos can be the kiss of death, but this one goes off without a hitch!
…March 2010 — I speak at Bates College in Lewiston Maine, in preparation for their upcoming juried astroimaging exhibition known as “Starstruck”. The Lewiston Sun Journal profiles me in advance of that lecture.
…November 2010 — 2nd CTIO trip with Jack Harvey; Daniel Verschatse again extends to us his unique brand of Chilean/European hospitality.
…November 2011 — Cornell University profiles me in their alumni magazine.
…2012 — Starstruck: The Fine Art of Astrophotography opens at Bates College — 3 of my images are selected for the show, which eventually (and fortuitously) comes to the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA in 2014 (just a stone’s throw from me).
…December 2012 — National Geographic names Thor’s Helmet one of the best 2012 space images.
…2013 — I author a chapter on image workflow/processing in “Lessons From the Masters: Current Concepts in Astronomical Image Processing” (edited by Robert Gendler).
…August 2013 — California trip with visit to Mt. Wilson Observatory, where the kids pose with the famous Hooker 100″ telescope.
…August 2017 — Family trip to Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, to witness the Total Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017. Totality occurred at approximately 11:36 AM local time under a perfect cloud-free sky!
…October 2017 — Sky & Telescope magazine features an lighthearted essay of mine in their “Focal Point” section on the last page.
…April 2018 — NEAF & NEAIC in Suffern, NY
…July 2018 — On July 24, 2018 MYHY Observatory celebrated its 20th anniversary! Thank you to all who helped make this a special occasion.
…February 2019 — Violet and I head south to the Florida Keys with Kathy and Terry Park for the Winter Star Party. We have a blast despite the lack of electricity and nearby restrooms at the site due to damage from Hurricane Irma in 2017. (Admittedly, it helps that we have a 30′ RV with lights, AC, and a generator.) We are there for 6 nights, 5 of which are mostly clear, allowing Terry and I to gather data on Barnard’s Loop.
…April 2019 — NEAF & NEAIC in Suffern, NY
… November 2019 — Violet and I head to San Jose, California for the Advanced Imaging Conference (AIC), where I am invited to host a workshop on astrophotography with Photoshop (“Photoshop for those in their right mind“). In turn, I attend some great talks by other well known imagers, learning new techniques. I also have a chance to hang with with some of the SSRO group members who are able to attend (pictured from left to right are Mark Hanson, Warren Keller, Peter Proulx, Stuart Forman, and myself). While on the west coast, I climb on my cousin’s roof in Oakland, attach solar filters to my binoculars, and image the Mercury transit with an iphone on November 11, 2019.
…July 2020 — Are you out there searching for Comet Neowise? In early July it’s visible about an hour before sunrise, and by mid July about an hour after sunset. From my location its evening apparition is never more than borderline naked eye visibility, although easily seen in any pair of binoculars. Here are some images.