If you spend enough time researching astrophotography, chances are you will encounter the work of Jay GaBany of Blackbird Observatory in New Mexico. Jay is an accomplished astrophotographer with many of his works appearing on popular space-related websites such as NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). His images have been featured in numerous magazine articles and books including: Sky & Telescope Magazine, The Year in Space Desk Calendar, Astrophysical Journal, Capturing the Stars: Astrophotography by the Masters by Robert Gendler, and many others. A complete list of Jay’s published works can be found on his website Cosmotography.
Shown below is a breath-taking example of Jay’s work featured on APOD in December of 2008. It is the star-forming region NGC 2264 and is made up of the Fox Fur Nebula, Cone Nebula, and Christmas Tree Star Cluster.
The detail captured in this beautiful scene is extraordinary! Jay’s images represent a wide variety of deep space subjects but all have one thing in common- they are visually stunning.
Astrophotography and Science
Something quite notable about Jay is his passion for the science behind the objects that he photographs. Every image includes a detailed description of the subject based on the current scientific understanding of it. In fact, many of Jay’s photos are part of a formal research program that involves collaboration with other astronomers from around the world. Currently, he is working on a 2-year project called A Pilot Survey with Modest Aperture Telescopes. This involves an international team of professional astronomers, astrophysicists, and private astrophotographers who are focusing on selected galaxies near the Milky Way. Jay’s latest photo of Galaxy NGC4651 (which includes data from the Isaac Newton Telescope) is the first in a series of images for this survey.
Note: you can sign up for Jay’s newsletter and be notified when a new photo is released!
Now, the Interview with Jay GaBany!
Here is Jay’s story from his April 2010 interview with Ray Shore of AstroPhotography Tonight. We hope you enjoy!
Please tell us about yourself. How did you get your start in astrophotography?
Back in 1969, when I was 14, I modified a department store refractor so that its axis of rotation could be pointed at the north pole then tinkered with an inexpensive Kodak camera so the shutter could be kept open. I was able to take a long exposure photograph of a bright comet, named Bennett, that appeared that winter. I also rigged an 8mm home movie camera so I could take pictures of the moon and a transit of the planet Mercury across the Sun. With the results, I was lucky enough to win the state science award that year. I did not attempt to photograph anything else until 1985, when Halley’s comet made it latest apparition. I used a Meade DS-16 for that project but became exhausted and disillusioned by the need to guide the telescope manually on an uninteresting star.
What equipment did you learn on (i.e., camera, telescope)?
My venture into digital astrophotography began at the turn of this century with a Takahashi CN-212 and SBIG ST-2000. Over a period of a year, I upgraded to a Tak Mewlon 300 and SBIG ST-10 from my light polluted back yard. That setup became my class room.
Did you have any mentors or someone who inspired you during your early days in astrophotography?
I was inspired by the works of Robert Gendler, Russ Croman and Adam Block. But, I did not have a mentor other than Ron Wodaski’s seminal first book on astrophotography called “The New CCD Astronomy”.. I also learned a lot through examples I saw and encouragement I received from members of the SBIG on-line forum. From an educational perspective, membership on that list was worth its weight in gold. Five years ago, there were no DVD tutorials that would show processing techniques and other astrophotographers were reluctant to share their methods. So, through trail, error and determination, I slowly learned how to produce images that were reasonable facsimiles of their subject.
Please tell us about your observatory (type, location, sophistication/automation, control room, etc).
My observatory is located in the south central mountains of Southern New Mexico located about 7,300 feet above sea level under deep, dark night time skies. The observatory is entirely remote controlled from my home in San Jose, California- the dome, the mount and the camera are all operated via an Internet connection to a computer situated inside the observatory.
What equipment are you currently using for astrophotography?
Today, my equipment includes a RCOS .5 meter telescope mounted on a Software Bisque Paramount. For the past four years, I have been using an 11 mega-pixel SBIG STL-11000 camera and AO-L. Early this year, I started using an 16 mega-pixel Apogee Alta camera.
What is your favorite imaging subject (planets, moon, nebula, galaxies, etc.)?
My favorite subject are galaxies because I always wonder how many eyes are staring back at me when I am processing my exposures.
Do you belong to any astronomy related organizations?
I am a member of the Board of Directors for the annual Advanced Imaging Conference, held in San Jose each fall. I also have served on the Advisory Council for the Kitt Peak Visitor’s Center.
Do you have any published works such as articles, books, tutorials, videos, etc?
I have been very lucky to have over 80% of my images published at least once in a magazine or book. Several of my images have also appeared on astronomy related web sites and television shows.
What, in your opinion, is the toughest subject to image?
Nebulae are the most challenging subject for me due to the vast amount of faint and low contrast material captured in long exposure images.
What do you consider to be your best work in astrophotography?
While I have my favorite images, I believe my best are those that reveal something that has previously been overlooked. Sometimes this can be a faint structure while other times it can be a feature whose existence was hidden by low contrast. I try to produce images that add something new to our understanding of the subject. This can often produce surprising results when I am dealing with familiar subjects.
Astrophotography has a steep learning curve. What in your opinion is the most difficult part to master?
Everything about astrophotography is challenging when you step back and think about it objectively. The chances for failure are astronomical, in fact. For example, the capricious nature of the weather conspires to prevent the imager from producing exposures- clouds, bad seeing, wind and humidity are a constant threat. The mount, the optics, and other types of mechanical and electronic issues can also derail the most ardent attempts to create a deep space picture. But, even if good data is obtained, the astrophotographer must then master the art of image processing. This is, perhaps, the steepest hill to climb. It took me a year to learn how to produce images with good consistency and I am still learning something new with each picture I try to create.
What recommendations can you provide for those who are interested in entering the field of astrophotography?
Astrophotography is not for the feint of heart. It requires patience, dedication and the unflinching determination. In the process, the imager will not only explore the depths of heaven but, more importantly, come to better understand their own inner capabilities. Both voyages will reveal surprises and reward those that have the fortitude to push forward, even when success seems farthest from their grasp.