Last Saturday afternoon I had the opportunity to photograph the 36″ Gueymard Research Telescope (among others) at the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s George Observatory. The 36″ telescope is one of the largest in the nation open to the public on a regular basis and it’s an impressive sight to behold!
Photographing a telescope this large with only the light from the open dome doors was a challenge to say the least. The telescope array itself was painted a highly reflective white with a beautiful blue armature but the dome interior was painted a dark gray to absorb any scattered light. I’m sure this helps the astronomers with their work but the extremes of contrast drive the camera’s light meter crazy and I had to revert to “manual” mode and bracket up and down to get an acceptable exposure.
What made things worse was that the observation deck I was shooting from was metal (the floor could be raised and lowered to match the telescope) and the vibrations from moving around made getting a tack sharp image almost impossible, even with a tripod. Added to this was the fact that the entire dome was only 36 feet across meaning that all of my shots had to be taken from within 10 feet from the telescope. I tried bouncing a flash but the dark gray walls soaked up the light like a sponge. I dialed down the flash and added a diffuser to add some fill light but the reflection off the white and blue of the telescope looked entirely too stark.
There I stood with one of the observatory’s volunteers, almost out of ideas when I thought to myself “What the hell would Joe McNally do in a situation like this?” So I pushed my luck a little and asked if the dome could be rotated so that the telescope faced away from the opening (hopefully giving me some indirect sunlight to work with). I’m sure the volunteer thought I was out of my mind trying to position a telescope to point away from the dome’s opening, but he went right ahead and did it anyway.
This is what I call a “blinding flash of the obvious”. You know what I’m talking about. You’re completely out of ideas, starting to feel damn stupid and embarrassed as hell. So you try anything just hoping to get lucky. Well it worked! Now I had some really warm (late afternoon), diffuse sunlight coming in. Hitting the telescope and armature like I’d lit the place with a giant softbox. So I shot like a maniac for the next 30 minutes before the sun dropped below the tree-line surrounding the observatory.
I’ve got to say that I couldn’t have gotten these shots without the kindness, patience and assistance from the Observatory’s volunteer staff including Joe Mills, Mary Lockwood, Tony Wiese, Judy Dye and especially Carl Sexton. These folks give up their Saturday evenings throughout the year so that the public can have the chance to “see the heavens” as they do. Many of these folks have been doing this every Saturday for the past ten years!
I’d also like to thank Barbara Wilson, the observatory’s Astronomer and Erin Blatzer, the Assistant PR Director for the Houston Museum of Natural Science, for giving me the opportunity to photograph these incredible telescopes. And for the chance to meet with such a passionate group of amateur astronomers and volunteers!
If you’d like to see all the images I’ve taken at the observatory you can find them on the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Flicker Group or on their Press Room. I’ll be posting the better picks directly from Adobe Lightroom 2 using a Flicker Export plug-in.