- ImagingInfinity, DSLR modifications by Hap Griffin
- The MAC-Hunter Observation Site
- Midlands Astronomy Club
- Slideshow of Hap's photography (set to music of Pink Floyd)
- Hap's AstroBin gallery
- The MoonArk
- (05:44) Growing up, loving space
- (08:07) Getting serious about astronomy
- (10:12) Building an observatory
- (13:17) Modifying cameras
- (16:16) Hap's photographic process
- (29:53) Reflections on time
- (34:30) Art vs. science
- (38:44) Advice for beginners
- (40:16) His favorite objects to photograph
- (43:35) Photographing rockets
- (52:28) The MoonArk project
His images represent a journey through space and time. They transport us to alien, glowing worlds on the edges of the universe, while still reminding us of what it means to be human.
Today, I’m having a conversation with astrophotographer Hap Griffin.
Hello, and welcome to Photo 365, my name is Andrew Haworth.
Andy: My great-grandmother, Vivian, lived to see Halley's comet twice in her lifetime. Born in 1899, she was only 10 years old when the comet made its 1910 approach. Growing up, she captivated me with tales of how the comet was bright enough to be visible through windows just before dawn, and how the sight of it was so terrifying, she would sneak past the windows and run down the hallway to avoid catching a glimpse of it.
Like her, I was 10 years old when I saw Halley's Comet. In 1986, just after dusk, a group of local amateur astronomers held a star party in rural South Carolina. On that night, I recall looking into a reflector telescope and seeing Jupiter and its moons for the first time. The astronomers, using flashlights, pointed out constellations, such as the Pleiades, Orion, and Cassiopeia.
Then, it was time for the big moment. Through a large pair of binoculars I caught my one and only glimpse of Halley's Comet. I recall it looked a lot like the images from 1910: A fuzzy snowball suspended in space, with a trailing tail. I don't remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I'll never forget that night.
I grew up fantasizing about space. As a kid, one of my favorite books was a slim Random House children's book from the 1970s simply titled The Astronauts. When I learned how to read, I obtained a copy of National Geographic's atlas titled Our Universe. This was a giant hardcover volume that featured beautiful artwork covering everything from the Egyptian sun god Ra, to the outer planets and beyond. I devoured books about space and astronomy into my teen-aged years. I read Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Carl Sagan, and Stephen J. Hawking. I pondered the meaning of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Naturally my parents encouraged this. They took me to planetariums, science museums, and bought me a decent refractor telescope I used to observe Saturn, Jupiter, and the Moon. At one point, I sent off for a Space Camp application. I even had a Casio Cosmo Phase watch; Its LCD display showed the positions of the planets on any given date. I proudly wore this computerized horological wonder until I graduated from high school.
But, like so many dreams, astronomy and space exploration would fall by the wayside. It wasn't because I lost interest, but rather, I was simply a terrible student, especially in math. All sciences, but especially astronomy, rely on math and physics, and I barely passed basic algebra. Liftoff aborted!
I mention all this, because I want to contextualize just how much I'm inspired by today's guest, astrophotographer Hap Griffin.
Hap is a true Renaissance man who never gave up on his dreams of the cosmos. I've been a fan of his images for more than a decade now, but Hap isn't JUST a photographer. He's an electrical engineer, a musician, an artist, amateur astronomer, and above all, an educator, who shares his knowledge and love of science with children and adults.
Digital technology and software has revolutionized astrophotography. As photographers adopted early digital SLRs to image the night sky, Hap became frustrated by the inability of cameras to see certain wavelengths of light. So he developed a modification process to address the problem.
That turned into a side business, appropriately named ImagingInfinity, and to-date, he's modified thousands of cameras for clients, cementing his legacy in the astrophotography world, and earning him the 2012 Clyde Tombaugh Memorial Award for Innovation in Astronomy (and listeners, if you don't know who Clyde Tombaugh is, he's the guy that discovered Pluto).
Hap retired as Vice President of Engineering for South Carolina Educational Television in 2012, where he oversaw broadcast technology for 11 TV stations, 8 radio stations, and a multi-channel digital satellite network. He's still with the station as a consultant and project manager.
He's a contributor to Sky & Telescope Magazine, and a regular speaker at astronomy conferences. He's a longtime member of the Midlands Astronomy Club, and one of the founders of the MAC-Hunter observation site in Bethune, South Carolina. Oh, and he also photographs rocket launches at Cape Kennedy -- from the launchpad!
His photography was recently selected for inclusion in a time capsule destined for the surface of the Moon, where it will survive for millennia.
The Andromeda Galaxy
Hap, it's such a pleasure to be talking with you today, welcome to the show.
Hap: Glad to be here!
Andy: Well, let's start right at the beginning. Where did you grow up and how did you develop such a love for space and astronomy?
Hap: Well, I grew up right here in Sumter, South Carolina. And I've been interested in astronomy since basically day one. Both of my parents worked. And my grandmother stayed at the house a lot and basically raised me and my younger brother, for the first few years. Although she didn't know a lot about astronomy, she always took me out on the front porch and showed me the stars and the Moon. And I really enjoyed that. I mean, I was like two years old at the time. And she actually said that my first word was ‘Moon.’ So I've been interested in astronomy ever since.
And as soon as I could learn how to read, I was at the library, every time I could get a chance, reading everything I could find on astronomy. And of course, back in the 60s, when I grew up was when we were going to the Moon, with the Apollo space program, the Gemini space program. Those were just terribly impressive for a kid that's interested in science and astronomy, and basically all things space.
My parents let me stay home from school every time that there was a rocket launch on TV. And so I followed all of them all the way through the 60s and 70s. And, and that's where I really, you know, really just got totally hooked on astronomy.
Andy: And you were interested in other sciences as well. In fact, you majored in electrical engineering, is that correct?
Hap: Yeah, I was, that's another one of my early loves, is electronics. As a kid, I was always into building radios and working on radios, and I even, you know, fixing TVs for my neighbors and everything. When I was like, 10, or 12 years old, I worked on that stuff in my bedroom. But once I smoked up the house one too many times with soldering smoke. And with things that burned up, they decided to build me a workshop in the backyard where I could put all that stuff and not have it inside the house. So I was very fortunate to have parents that helped me along with my interests, and built me a workshop and all that. So it was it was a great, great, great childhood
Andy: When you were growing up, when did you start getting serious about astronomy itself? Was that something you were doing along? And along? or How did that come about?
Hap: Well, I had I had been borrowing telescopes, you know, all through my teen years. And even in the 20s, I had friends who had telescopes that really didn't use them very much. And so I would borrow their scopes. And, you know, look at the planets and, and any deep sky objects that I could see. Of course, on a small cheap telescope, that's sort of an iffy proposition. But by the time that I turned 40, I decided okay, I'm gonna get serious about this thing. And I bought my first serious astronomical telescope and joined the Midlands astronomy club in Colombia, and it totally blew me away that here were people that understood what I was talking about, and they were as enthusiastic about it as I was. And so it's, it's been a great thing being a member of that club.
Andy: Absolutely. At what point did you start thinking about taking photos of the night sky? Did you grow up taking photos? Did you enjoy photography when you were younger?
Hap: Well, I’ve always been into photography a little bit. And I've done some astronomy, astronomical photography, just working with cameras and tripods and things like that. But once I got into astronomy heavily, and got to a telescope that was worth anything, the next step was to hook a camera to it. And I quickly found out that it's a lot harder than it looks. There is a very steep learning curve. And I didn't have the right equipment at the time, the wrong type of mount for one thing. So it took the next several years of building, purchasing and putting together equipment and getting to where I was able to get some successful, deep sky shots, and it just went from there.
Andy: Now, it's my understanding that when you're setting up a telescope for this type of deep sky photography, that the setup process is very tedious and precise, and you end up breaking it down and setting it back up again. Obviously, one of your goals was to create an observatory of some sort and you did.
Hap: I really wanted to have something where I can permanently set up and align the equipment and have it ready to go when I was ready to go and just roll a roof back on a shared or small building and turn things on and be ready already aligned and ready to go. So I had been looking for like the corner of a farmer's cornfield or something like that, that I could lease and build a little small observatory.
There's a place on the internet called Astro Mart, which is basically eBay for astronomical equipment. I was looking through there one day and I saw this ad that said, ‘free land for your observatory.’ And I thought, well, what is this and you know, I said, it's got to be out in California someplace or something like that. And turns out, it was only about 45 minutes up the road from where I live. And so I called and met the gentleman that owned the property. His name was Gene Hunter, and I went up there and met him. Turns out that he was an astronomer who had a lot of the same interests that I did; we almost had the same equipment.
So we started talking about building an observatory on his property up there near Bethune, South Carolina, which is in one of the darker areas of the state. We decided, rather than building two observatories, we’d build one that was big enough to house both of our equipment. And over the next few months, we did that. Then, as members of the Astronomy Club came up to visit, they wanted to do the same thing. And so he donated the land. And we ended up with several more observatories there. And then finally, we decided that, you know, hey, we need to incorporate and Gene donated the land to the group. So we now jointly own the land up there, where we are, and we have five roll-off roof observatories and nine of us are members.
And it’s just a great, great time to be up there on a weekend and have everybody there and we cook out and we sit out on the deck and play guitar, and we eat and observe satellites going over, while the cameras in the observatories are taking pictures.
The Pleiades cluster
Andy: I've had the pleasure to visit out there a few times. And it's a really amazing site. It's one of the few places I can think of in South Carolina where we can really get that dark, dark sky, which is so crucial to astrophotography. And in terms of photographing the night sky. Prior to digital technology, we had to worry about things like reciprocity failure in film, hyper sensitizing the film in various ways, but digital technology, it really changed all that. But there was a little bit of a problem in that some of these new digital cameras weren't able to see all of the spectrum that you would like to see as an astrophotographer. So you developed a solution to that. How did that come about?
Hap: Back after I had known through trying to image with film back in the film days, and I bought my first DSLR, which was a Canon 10D back in, I guess, 2002 or so, I found out that the first image that I took from it was far better than I could have ever had done with films. And it was a lot quicker in terms of gathering photons. So I gave away all my film stuff and I was stuck on DSLRs from then on.
But then it became apparent that DSLRs have a filter in them that fits over the sensor. Turns out the sensor is extremely sensitive to a wide band of spectrum all the way from ultraviolet down through the visible range and down into infrared. And so the camera manufacturers tend to put a filter in front of that sensor that blocks out the extreme ends of the spectrum so that what gets to the filter is basically the same as what your eye sees. So that when you take a snapshot or whatever that it looks like what you remember that scene as looking like. So it blocks out infrared and it blocks out the ultraviolet.
Unfortunately, one of the colors that is extremely important in astrophotography is a very deep red color that is given off by hydrogen gas that is glowing. And since you know 90% of the universe is hydrogen, we're missing out on a lot of the deep red color in a lot of the emission nebula, the deep, deep, deep sky objects. And the only way to capture that with a DSLR since they're nearly blind to it right out of the box, is to go in and modify the camera where you replace that internal filter with one that has a modified spectral response so that it can actually pass that deep red color that a stock camera is almost blind to.
So anyway, I started back in 2003 modifying my own camera and then the word got around and I modified a few more for locals and had some people that were on some of the various internet chat groups that wanted me to modify theres. So I put together a website, so I didn't have to keep sending the same email out over and over again. And it just, it just exploded. And since 2003, I have modified over 3,500 cameras. So they're all over the world.
The sensor is at the heart of a digital camera. Here, Hap has removed the sensor to install a hydrogen alpha filter. (Photo by Andrew Haworth)
Andy: Yeah, if you search for your name, of course, you find a lot of people talking about your camera modifications. And it's almost as if you've become a folk hero of sorts in the astrophotography world by providing this very important service. And speaking of imaging, I would love to hear about your process about how you get your fantastic images. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Hap: Yeah, sure. Well, first of all, you're dealing with objects that are millions of light years away, I mean, the light has been traveling literally for millions of yours. And it's what I call just on this side of black, just barely there. In many cases, and in a lot of cases, even if you could look, you know, put an eyepiece in a telescope and look through it, you can hardly see a lot of the things that I photograph, because the light is so dim.
So we have to be using long camera exposures to be able to soak up these photons and create an image from light that is almost not there. And that's one of the things that fascinates me is to be able to pull details out of something like that. But so we're looking at long exposures, which means that obviously, the telescope and the mount have to be tracking the sky extremely accurately, if you're shooting with a one-shot color camera like a DSLR. And some CCD cameras are one-shot color as well, you're basically capturing all of the colors at one time. But it turns out that the way that is done in the camera is that each pixel has a different color filter over that pixel, you have a one row of pixels, you might have red, green, red, green, red, green, and then the next row, you would have green, blue, green, blue, green, blue. And the downside of that is that obviously only red green or blue light is going to hit any one pixel. And so the camera has to interpolate from the pixels around it, for instance, if it's under a red pixel, if we're looking at at a pixel or a pixel in the sensor that's under a red filter, then it has to guess what the green and the blue levels of light would be based on what's around it.
So there's a whole lot of estimated data in a single-shot color camera. And the effective resolution is lost because now you're having to gather information from the pixels surrounding the pixel that you're talking about. A better solution for astrophotography, and to get the ultimate resolution is to have a monochrome sensor that has no filters over the pixels. There are other all in use for all colors all the time. And then you put a single pixel filter, either a red, green, or blue or some specialized filter over the entire matrix and shoot entire pictures in single colors. And then and those are at full resolution of the sensor, then you go into software and combine them into a red, green, blue, full color image.
Andy: Essentially you're taking multiple exposures and stacking those exposures to create your final image. Is that correct?
Hap: As it turns out again, we're looking at light that is so dim that it's coming in photon by photon actually. And if you really dive in and look closely at an individual image, say an individual 10 minute exposure, you think, you know, if you're shooting daylight 10 minutes is immensely long, but really not when you're shooting something that is so dark. And if you look really close at the image, what you'll find is that not all pixels are lit up at the same time. I mean, you have these individual photons that come in and form a sort of a spotty pattern. Then if you shoot another 10 minute exposure, what you'll find is that other pixels will pick up photons. And so if you combine 10 or 20 or 30 of these images together, then things fill in and all of the pixels are lit and you get a much smoother image by combining and averaging a number of exposures versus just a single exposure.
The Lagoon Nebula
Andy: I think a lot of photographers are familiar with the concept of noise in images, particularly as you start working in low light situations. As you increase the gain or increase your ISO on a camera you generally increase noise. You have a very unique way of dealing with noise and these very long exposures. When you're doing astrophotography, can you talk a little bit about that?
Hap: Yeah, there's always noise in any electronics, I mean, anything that's above absolute zero has noise. And so you cool the camera down, because the colder the sensor is, the less electrical noise it introduces into the image. That's one of the disadvantages of DSLR is that they're, you know, they're at the mercy of the ambient temperature. So if you can cool the camera down, it works better.
And so I have these cameras operating it, you know, 20 and 30 degrees below zero. And so the noise is fairly low, but the noise is there. So what you can do to minimize the noise is you take a picture of the noise, basically, you take what's called dark frames, which is in essence, putting a cap over the lens, or over the telescope, and shooting for the same length of time as your image frames are. So if you take in 10 minute exposures, you'll be taking a series of 10 minute dark frames as well, dark exposures, that where everything is the same, the the ISO, the temperature, the exposure time is the same as your image frames, except that you're not letting in in a light so that anything that shows up in the picture is noise that the camera itself is introducing. And in most cases, that's what they call pattern noise. And it's somewhat the same from frame to frame. Because you have things called hot pixels, the different responses of the different pixels in the array. And so you can go through in your process and subtract out those dark frames, and it basically subtracts out most of the noise.
Andy: So essentially, you've created a noise profile that you can use to clean up an image. So let's say you're imaging the Andromeda galaxy, that's kind of one of my favorites. How many exposures does it take to get an image that you're happy with?
Hap: Well, it turns out that the amount of noise in an image goes down by the square of the number of frames that you average together. So what you'll find is that there's a point of diminishing returns, if you take two pictures, then you have the square root of two less noise or 1.414. If you take four pictures, you have twice as less noise, the square root of four. And if you go to the eight, and it's 16, and 32. And that kind of thing, what you find is that it takes more and more frames to take out less and less noise.
So you get to a point of no return somewhere around 16 to 20 frames is what I usually shoot for. And so if, if I'm shooting an object, I'm usually I've standardized on 10 minute exposures, I've got a camera that won't overload at 10 minutes, even on bright stars, all your detail is in the luminance frames. In other words, the black and white portion of a picture. Your eyes are not as detailed in color receptors as they are in black and white brightness receptors. So you really put a lot of your concentration in something called the luminance frames, which is basically just the brightness parts of an image. So I'll take maybe 16 or 2010 minute exposures. So when you think about it, eight to 10 minute exposures is three hours. Wow. So that's three hours worth of exposure there, then I go back and take usually 6 10 minute exposures in each of red, green and blue. So there's another three hours. And so just that, I'm looking at six hours of exposures. And then if I want to add in some of the specialized filters like hydrogen alpha, or oxygen-3 or something like that, then you know, there's that on top of that. So you're looking at, I shoot one image per night, generally is all you have time for because it rises in the east, and sets in the west, whatever object that you're shooting, and you track it the entire time, you get anywhere from six to eight or nine hours on a single object per night. And if that's still not enough, I can come back and shoot another night and sometimes a third or even fourth night on the same object and align it perfectly and it overlays and so I can end up with, you know, 20 or 30 hours on a single object.
Ansdy: As terrestrial photographers, we're accustomed to, you know, very, very short exposures compared to to astronomical photography, but I think it's important that people know when they see these very bright, vibrant images, like for instance, take one of your images of the Horsehead Nebula, it's very bright and vibrant. bright, and colorful. But in reality, these objects in space are extremely dim, there's not a lot of light emanating from them.
Hap: That's right, for instance, then you talk about the Horsehead. The Horsehead is a famous dust cloud that is in the shape of a horse's head actually looks more like a seahorse to me. But it's against a background that has glowing hydrogen, of red glowing hydrogen, deep red, glowing hydrogen. And so you have this dark foreground object, which is basically dark dust right in front of this curtain of hydrogen, glowing hydrogen gas, and it's a beautiful object. And you can just barely, even in some of the larger telescopes that I've seen some of the 20 inch telescopes on a dark night, once your eyes are, are adapted to the dark, you really can just barely see it. You're basically looking for a place where you don't see anything else. That's the horsehead.
But if you can soak up all those photons over several hours, then yeah, you can make a dynamite image. And that's what's really there. I mean, you're not, we're not adding anything that's not there, we're just bringing up the contrast and showing the details and things that are exceedingly dim.
Andy: One of the things that has always struck me is that these objects are relatively large in the sky. For instance, Andromeda is a really large object, and we can just barely see it. So it's not always about magnification so much as it is about light gathering capability.
M51, The Whirlpool Galaxy
Hap: A lot of the things that we shoot deep sky, what I say deep sky mean anything outside of our solar system. Which is ironic that things that are closest to us, the planets are tiny, and they, they, they're very tiny against the background sky, and you need specialized, long focal length telescopes and things to really photograph those. And that's not my cup of tea, I really go more for the deep sky objects that are outside our solar system, and even outside of our own galaxy.
But it turns out that they're a lot larger in the sky than most people think. They think when you're shooting through a telescope you're using a huge amount of magnification, kind of like a microscope. But that's not really the case. For instance, the Andromeda galaxy that you're talking about is three degrees wide, that's six times the width of the full Moon or the sun, the sun, or the boat and the full moon are each a half a degree wide.
So if you had eyeballs the size of dinner plates, you could probably see it, but your eyes with the little tiny pupil that you have, really can't gather that number of photons, they're not sensitive enough to see it in real time. And so all you get to see of Andromeda with your naked eye is just the core. But if you can soak up the photons that are coming in, over time with a camera, then you get to see the full extent of it and all the details in it.
Andy: If we were able to jump in a starship and fly to one of these galaxies or nebula, would they look that dim? Up close as they are as we see them in the night sky?
Hap: For the most part, yes. I mean, you think about how dim the Andromeda galaxy is, well, we live inside of its sister galaxy, right, our Milky Way galaxy is almost an identical twin. And you have to be in a dark area to be able to see the Milky Way at night. And we're living inside of it. We're seeing the Milky Way from an inside vantage point. And it's not that bright. It's a combination of when you see the Milky Way across the sky at night, it looks like a cloud. But it's actually a combination of 400 billion stars. And each of these stars is a sun.
Andy: The magnitudes of what we're talking about here about how far this light travels and how long it takes to get here is mind blowing. And so astrophotography, images are really a compilation of time, very long exposures that create these very intense images.
Hap: Speaking of time, and a lot of people don't realize this. But when we're looking at deep sky objects, we're seeing them as they existed when the light left those objects and say for instance, if we're looking at the Andromeda galaxy, that's 2.5 million light years away. So we're seeing it as it existed 2.5 million years ago, we're seeing a snapshot in time when that light left that galaxy.
And most of the galaxies that are photographed are anywhere from say 30 to 60 million light years away, and so we're looking way back In time. Even when we look at things like quasars that are billions of light years away, we're looking at objects where the light left and even before the earth even existed. And so that just fascinates the heck out of me.
Matter of fact, a lot of people ask me, what's the farthest thing you've ever photographed. And it turns out that it's a quasar. Matter of fact, I've started shooting quasars lately and looking for them. And these are objects that existed in the very early universe. We don't see any nearer than about 2 billion light years. So that means they don't exist anymore. There's none that existed after about 2 billion years ago. And what they are is supermassive black holes at the center of galaxies that are basically eating an entire galaxy and putting off huge amounts of energy and light, and we're able to see them basically clear across the universe. They're so bright.
Up until I guess a few weeks ago, the farthest object that I had ever photographed was about 4 billion light years away. But then recently, I've been able to shoot an object that was a quasar that's 8.5 billion light years away. Think about this, the universe is only 13.8 billion years old. So this object, the light has been traveling for more than half of the universe's lifetime. And this one is really cool, because there's an intervening galaxy in front of it between us and it, that's too dim to see. And it causes the light to refract into two different images.
So what we're seeing is two images, two quasars that look like a star basically. But they're side by side, it's the same object that has been what they call gravitationally lensed. And what's even cooler is that the light path of one image is 1.4 years longer than the other image. So we're seeing two images of the same object separated in time by about 14 months, 14 to 15 months. And it would be like looking at a person with his twin, side by side, but at different points in their lifetime.
And so it just, you know, it's mind blowing to think that we really have at our hands a real time machine here with a telescope. Andy: I get chills hearing you describe that. And I know the few times I've been out shooting under the stars -- and I'll preface this by saying I'm not a religious person -- but when I'm shooting the stars, I feel some sort of spiritual connection to something there. Do you have that feeling of wonderment when you're making these images in your observatory?
The MAC-Hunter observation site. Hap's observatory is the first from left. (Photo by Andrew Haworth)
Hap: Being out under the night sky and seeing these things, and actually knowing what I'm seeing -- a lot of people see stars, and they don't really realize what they are, and where they are, and how distant they are. And they don't get that. That feeling of awe that someone who has studied the subject and really knows what, what they're seeing is.
And when I see when I say when I see these objects appearing on my computer screen, and they really appear once you do the processing later at home, you know, I can sit here and almost have tears in my eyes. It's such a moving experience.
Andy: You know, art is an emotional experience. And I feel like what you do is artistic but I also know that you do a lot of science and in the astrophotography community is there a push and pull when it comes to art versus science in image making?
Hap: There is. As it turns out the objects that we shoot are extremely dim. And so by necessity, we have to do things like stretching the contrast in Photoshop, and various processing programs, possibly enhancing the color and things like that. Now, the philosophy that we use is that we don't ever want to add anything to the photograph that's not there. Originally, we just want to enhance what's there, bring it up out of the noise, bring it up out of the darkness, but never ever fake a picture, so to speak.
And so that's sort of the philosophy that I use when I'm processing my deep sky objects. Now on the other hand, things like photographing asteroids and trying to do some real science on them that where we might want to photograph them over a period of time and plot their light curves, their brightness changes over time to be able to figure out how fast they're rotating, that kind of thing, where you're doing actual science, you don't want to adulterate the data at all. You want to use the raw data right out of the camera to measure an object's brightness and things like that so that when you try to start pulling contrast on things like that then basically you're destroying the ability to do real science on it.
So you need to decide for the project that you're working on whether this is going to be a science project or a beautiful pictures project.
Andy: I can't help but think that we're in such a great place right now photographically. We have so many different types of technology that we can use to image the night sky and you know, cameras have never been better and it's really amazing the type of quality that folks like you are getting.
Hap: You know, I look back at some of the books -- I've got a whole collection of astronomy books and everything and back when I used to read astronomy books and in high school and and even in grade school -- and look at these pictures from these huge observatories around the world. I'm doing much better work now than they did even 30 years ago.
You look at pictures from professional observatories from back in the 70s, and 80s. And with my own Observatory, I'm doing deeper, more detailed, than they were doing back then with these huge observatories, so things have really come a long way.
Andy: In any artistic discipline, we're always looking at an artist's style. So, as astrophotographers, we all sort of have the same view of these objects. I can look at your work and say, that's a Hap Griffin photo, I can pick it out of other astro photographers. How do you develop your personal style, when you're doing this type of work, that can look so similar to work that other folks are doing?
Hap: A lot of people when they first get started, they tend to over process. And you'll see things where the contrast is just stretched, almost to an ugly degree. And some folks as they get more experienced, they tend to back down on that a little bit and try to get more of a realistic image. And that's where I'm at. I know that some of my first stuff, I look back on it, and I kind of wince at some of what I was publishing at the time, years ago.
But I try to make as natural-looking object as possible, something that you might see with your naked eye, you know, if you were there, so to speak. So yeah, it's just a matter of getting a workflow down and pretty much following it almost every time. So a lot of my pictures do have a similar type of look to them. And I'm kind of proud of the fact that you say you can recognize them.
Andy: Oh, absolutely, you can. I'm curious what advice you would have for beginners who want to get started in astrophotography, because obviously, the solution isn't to just go out and buy a bunch of equipment; there's a lot of learning that has to take place here.
Hap: First of all, find somebody that's already doing it so that you've got a mentor, but you can do a lot with just a regular DSLR and a tripod. You don't have to have the, you know, all of the expensive equipment to start with. You can do some interesting skyscapes of the Milky Way against objects in the foreground, trees or old buildings or something like that. You can shoot the Milky Way wide where you're looking at a huge swath of sky. And so tracking doesn't make a lot of difference over just a few seconds that you would be exposing so you can get started that way.
And the camera sees more than your eye does. So what you'll see if you take pictures of the Milky Way is you'll see a number of these deep sky objects embedded in the Milky Way that will come out in the photographs. And that's what got me hooked. Once I had seen images of all of these nebulae in books as I was growing up. And then once I started doing some tripod shooting, and I saw, hey, there's, you know, there's the Orion Nebula there is the Trifid Nebula, there's the Lagoon Nebula, all these different nebulas that I had read about and seen in pictures were actually showing up in my Milky Way pictures. And that's kind of what really got me started into wanting to go deeper and get better equipment to get closer in on these objects.
Andy: What are some of your favorite objects to photograph?
Hap: Oh, gosh. Well, there's always, as in with any hobby, you've got the basics. The Great Orion Nebula is one that everybody loves. The Andromeda galaxy is one that everybody loves. The Horsehead is one that everybody loves. I like going for the more obscure galaxies. And now I've gotten into quasars. Which is basically like a star. So there's really nothing much to look at unless you know what you're looking at.
And just the concept of that, you know, I'm shooting something that's eight and a half billion light years away, you know, that just blows me away. So I like stuff like that. But I've also gotten into -- a friend of mine that is from Kosovo -- she's studying for a masters in planetary science out in California. She and I became sort of project partners in astronomy, and we've done some talks together, some national conference talks together and things like that. And she is all into asteroids. And matter of fact, she has an asteroid named for her.
Comet C/2014 Q2 Lovejoy
So when we became friends a couple of years ago, about three years ago, I started trying to photograph the asteroid that was named for her. And I was successful at that. And then I got further into asteroid photography, where it turns out that, you know, asteroids are usually very small objects, they're, you know, anywhere from 1,000 yards or so to a mile or two and, you know, several miles in diameter. So they're the runts of the solar system, so to speak, they're planets that never came together, pieces of planets that never came together. So they're small. And so they're, they're also, they're not spherical. They are odd, they might be shaped like a peanut or something like that. And as they fly through space around the sun, they rotate. And so there's some measurements that you can make by measuring the brightness of an asteroid over time, extremely accurately by comparing its brightness to known stars that are in the background. And you can develop what's called a light curve. And you can, you can tell from this light curve, how fast that object is rotating. So that fascinates me.
And that's something that my friend Pranvera and I have gotten into lately. And my goal was to find the rotational rate of her asteroid. And I've gotten most of the way there, but not quite all the way. I haven't got a full light curve yet. I need some more exposure time. And it's out of view right now on the other side of the world.
Andy: So you've gone from gazing at the stars as a child to getting your first telescope to now actually doing some real astronomy.
Hap: Yeah, an amateur like me can do real science.
Andy: Well, let's talk about things a little bit closer to home, because one of the photographic subjects you've been doing lately are rocket launches from the launch pad. How did you get started with that very specific niche?
Hap: Of course I've always always been interested in space, travel and exploration, like I said, growing up in the 60s when, when we were actually going to the Moon and doing wonderful things. So I've always been interested in that. I always wanted to work at NASA. And I got sidelined into broadcasting, but I don't regret that, because I’ve spent my career there. But I would have loved to have been, in some form, working for NASA or some close subsidiary, and working on these projects. So I've always, you know, anytime I could go to Florida, always go to Kennedy Space Center.
So I was down there, I guess, back when the shuttle was being, the last few shuttle missions. I went down there to see a shuttle launch and a friend of mine, and well, actually several friends of mine, we went down there to see one of the final shuttle launches, because I said if I don't go now get to see the shuttle, because they’ve been going up for 30 years, you know, and, and so I was I was disappointed that I really hadn't ever gone down there to watch a shuttle launch. So I was sitting in Titusville with my friends across the river. And we watched Discovery launch on its last mission. And I got a phone call from a friend of mine who was out at the Cape. And after the launch, he said I need to go out and pick up my cameras at the launch site. And I thought, Well, wait a minute, how did you get clearance to do that? And he said, ‘well, I'm shooting for Sky and Telescope magazine. And I've got media credentials.
And he said, don't you work for a television station? I said, ‘Yeah, I’m vice president of a network,’ you know, he said, ‘Well, you can get media credentials if you go through the process.’ And I thought,’You know, well, duh!’ So I did. I went through, we were coming up on the last shuttle launch. And so I applied for media credentials through there. And they go through a security check and all this sort of thing to make sure you're not a terrorist or something like that because you're going to be out there on the pad with the rocket. And so right before, I guess two or three days before the launch, I finally got my credentials, and I headed to Florida.
You have to set up cameras usually the day before launch, because once they start fueling a rocket, you can't be there because it's just too dangerous. So you have to set up cameras a day or two before a rocket launches. And the shuttle is no different. If you've ever been to Florida, you know that it rains darn near every day. So you've got to set up your camera in some sort of a weatherproof container, you know, that is right next to the ocean. So you have too, you know, humidity is terrible. So if there's a morning launch, or a night launch, your lenses dew up really quickly because of the humidity. And so you have to do things like put dew heaters and timers and things like that to burn the humidity off the lens or the dew off the lens before the rocket launches.
So it gets fairly complex, because you're not going to be there with the camera, your camera is right there with the rocket. And so it has to work automated. So you have to build things like sound sensors to hear when the rocket engines ignite. And that's when it starts clicking off the shutter on the camera. If you're shooting video, you want to start the camera a minute or two before launch so that you can get on the entire sequence. And if you're dealing with a night launch, you have to put timed dew heaters and things like that where you turn on your dew heater say an hour before launch, and let it burn off the humidity on the lens. And so we have to have battery packs and all this sort of stuff, and design all that, and so to me, that's part of the interest of this. Because I love building electronic stuff like timers, and sound sensors and all that sort of thing. So it was a natural thing for me to get into.
This was 2011, the last shuttle launch. And I just got totally hooked on shooting rocket launches at NASA. And I've been to, I don't know, probably 30 or 40 of them since, and photograph those for either Sky and Telescope magazine or a website called americaspace.com.
Andy: And these are incredible photos by the way. They're very, very dramatic. But I tell you what hearing you talk about it, it sounds like this is almost as difficult as doing astrophotography.
Hap: Well, it's more work. Because you have to go out like say the day before. And they have a window of time where they let photographers, credentialed photographers, on the pads, and you have to get your work done really quickly. And when they say go, you gotta go. So I generally try to put out at least two still cameras and at least two video cameras at each launch. And sometimes I'm successful. And sometimes not. Sometimes things don't work right and end up with nothing. But for the most part, it's been very successful.
NROL-37 Launch, June 2016
Andy: And you have to keep those cameras powered on?
Hap: Correct. Yeah, they have to be in the standby mode and waiting for a shutter click, basically, you have a sound sensor, that is a homemade sound sensor that listens for the sound of the rocket engine starting. At that point, it starts clicking the shutter as fast as the shutter will go. And, it clicks as many objects or as many images as it can before the rocket goes. You know, out of sight. And one of the things that I found that early on, when I was shooting down there, was that a lot of guys, we would ride out to the sites together and buses and things like that. And so we would talk about lots of things. And one of the things that the other photographers were wanting was some way to actually track the rocket as it went up. Because if you just set a camera there on a tripod, you're going to get the rocket on the pad. And when it leaves the pad, it flies up out of the field of view. And so you've only got so many usable images, if you could somehow track that rocket on the way up automatically without having to be there, that would be a cool thing.
And so I thought I got to thinking I said ‘well shoot, I deal with telescope mounts all the time.’ And so I bought a cheap, what's called an alt-az telescope mount off of eBay. And a friend of mine and myself he's into microcontroller programming, that sort of thing. We got together and we bought an infrared sensor, again off of eBay. And it could see the heat of the rocket flame. And we wrote software to drive the mount so that it kept the rocket flame in the center of the image as it was going up. And we were able to actually build a tracking mount that worked fairly well. I think we might have had maybe 100 bucks in the whole thing, and I showed it to some of some of the folks at the NASA News Center and you know they were saying ‘Dang, you know, it took us a million dollars to do that.” And you know that was kind of cool too. Andy: Well Hap, you're definitely the modern renaissance man and I'm just amazed at all the cool things you do involving photography, and it's like you're on a never-ending quest for knowledge.
Hap: I just love everything science. Like I said, as a kid I was reading everything I could get my hands on. I really like doing outreach to neighborhood kids and things like that. Matter of fact, I've got a Tesla coil out in the shop that I show off to the kids around the neighborhood. And I've got all sorts of little magnets and different physics experiments and things like that I can show them. Trying to get the kids, you know, interested in science, like, I got interested in it. And that's, I think, the way to go.
I mean, the kids nowadays are so interested in video games, and you know, that kind of stuff. They need to get into reality and see some real things. And you know, science is one good way of doing that.
Andy: Absolutely. Well, I'd like to talk about one more thing. And this might be the coolest thing we talk about today. But your work is actually going to the Moon. And I would love for you to tell us a little bit about this MoonArk project.
Hap: Well, I have a whole lot of astronomical photography out on the web. And someone from Carnegie Mellon University was noticing it. And they sent me an email saying that they were participating in what was at the time the Lunar X Prize, their robotics division at Carnegie Mellon was building a lunar spacecraft to go to the moon and to deposit a lander on the surface of the moon, they would like for me to supply some images that would go in a time capsule of sorts, and be dropped down to the surface of the Moon. And of course, I jumped at the opportunity and asked, you know, what would you like to see, what type of pictures would be proper for this? And they said that the point of their time capsule was to sort of document the relationship between man and the Moon over aeons. And I said, ‘Well, how about if I took as close as I could get, images of the six Apollo landing sites?’ And they thought that was a great idea. I did that. And they they took those images and etched them onto two little platinum discs that will go into the time capsule of sorts, it's called the MoonArk. And it will be dropped on the Moon when this lander lands.
And as a matter of fact, NASA has picked them as being the lander of choice for taking equipment to the Moon, and the first launch of one of their landers should be later this year, or sometime next year. And so I'll be really excited to be able to point to the Moon with my grandkids, and, you know, say ‘Something that your Granddad made is there on the surface of the moon.’
Andy: It's absolutely incredible. And did you ever think that you would be doing that when you were a little child looking at the stars? Hap: Not at all, I guess it's appropriate that my grandmother said that the first my first word was ‘Moon’ and now I'm actually going to have something on the surface of the Moon that I made. So it's mind-blowing.
Andy: Absolutely. Hap you're such an inspiration and I'm so glad you took the time to talk with us today and come on the show and I can't thank you enough.
Hap: Glad to be here.