The "State" of Astrophotography

As published in the August 2000 issue of Sky&Telescope magazine

By Chris Cook

Tour the favorite haunts of some of the Golden State's most accomplished astrophotographers.

Away from the glitz and glamour, savvy amateur astronomers know where to find dark, transparent skies.

"Southern California" means many things to many people. For amateur astronomers, it is a mixed bag: a place known for glitzy lifestyles and rampant light pollution, but also a region whose astrophotographers produce some of the most spectacular images of the night sky. Who are these astro-artisans, and where are their secluded stomping grounds? As we'll see, Southern California's best astrophotography sites are as varied as those who frequent them.

Mt. Pinos

If one name could symbolize the pinnacle of amateur astrophotography, Mount Pinos would be it. Observers and astrophotographers have been coming to this temple in the sky since the 1950s. It's located in the Los Padres National Forest near the community of Frazier Park, roughly halfway between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. Topping out at 8,831 feet (2,692 meters), the mountain is the highest point in a region where the Transverse, Tehachapi, and South Coast ranges coalesce. While the true summit is accessible via a rough dirt road, most observers opt to set up in the parking lot located about 500 feet below the summit.

The weather here is frequently superb for astrophotography. The air is typically bone dry with very little haze or air pollution. These conditions greatly minimize the scattering of light from nearby Los Angeles, 65 miles(105 kilometers) to the southeast. Most, if not all of the haze, smog, and smoke found in the lower elevations around Los Angeles is trapped below 5,000 feet because of the ever-present inversion layer. Another important, yet often overlooked meteorological attribute is the dominant west-to-east airflow. It pushes pollution created by the larger cities away from the mountain (no major cities lie to the west). Then there is the parking lot - a very clean, low-dust environment for equipment. The pavement probably creates some air currents during the night due to radiating heat, but these do not seem to degrade the seeing conditions.

While the above factors can greatly affect the sky quality at Mount Pinos, the coastal marine layer that is found along the California seashore is the most influential. Caused by relatively warm, moist air condensing as it flows over the cooler coastal waters, the marine layer often blankets the coastal cites including Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Ventura with thick, low clouds and fog. This can totally extinguish the bubble of light pollution from the Los Angeles basin. The marine layer is most common during the spring and summer months, and it also influences other astrophoto sites in the region's surrounding mountains and deserts.

The astrophotographers that often take advantage of this terrific site have come to be known as the "Mount Pinos Rat Pack." Among them are Tony and Daphne Hallas, who have created some of the most awe-inspiring cosmic portraits of our time. Although their work has employed a veritable arsenal of different telescopes, they are currently using a custom-built 14.5-inch f/8 astrographic Cassegrain with both 35-mm and 120 film formats.

According to Tony, they first became interested in astrophotography in 1987 about a year after delving into the world of amateur astronomy. With Tony having a professional background in photography and Daphne being a seasoned photo lab technician, they both thought astrophotography would be easy. According to Tony, "We took our first images and got nothing on the negs except some squiggles." At that point, they knew astrophotography would be a challenging hobby.

In the late 1980s, Tony and Daphne began using a sandwich technique that uses two negatives of the same object (S&T: August 1989, page 216; and November 1998, page 130). In the resulting prints, they found that faint nebulas that had barely shown in earlier images now stood out in bold saturated contrast. Tony and Daphne now scan their negatives, composite them digitally using Picture Window, and add final enhancements in Adobe Photoshop. As their stunning results demonstrate, Team Hallas has come a long way since those initial "squiggles."

You will usually find the newest members of the "Rat Pack," Bob and Janice Fera, set up next to the Hallases. Living in Calabasas, California, Bob is an information-systems manager and Janice a sales engineer. Bob first took up astrophotography in the 1970s, when he would travel to the Los Angeles Astronomical Society's star parties in Lockwood Valley, near Mount Pinos. But his interest really was piqued around 1990. "I was browsing through a magazine rack and came across Sky & Telescope," Bob recalls. "I saw the photographs that the Hallases, Fletchers, and others were taking, and I couldn't believe my eyes. So I decided to get a telescope and give it a try again." These days Bob and Janice ply the skies with a C11 (used at f/10) on an Astro-Physics 1200GTO mount, though they're awaiting delivery of a 12.5-inch f/9 Cassegrain being built by Parallax Instruments. They employ imaging techniques much like the Hallases'.

Bill and Sally Fletcher of Malibu, California, have opted to take a slightly different route in capturing and processing their images. Instead of color film, they use the tricolor method. In tricolor, they shoot three images of the same object through red, green, and blue filters using gas-hypersensitized Kodak Technical Pan film. The negatives are then scanned and assembled using a Macintosh computer. Since attempting their first astrophotos back in 1985, the Fletchers have used 8- and 16-inch f/4.5 Newtonians and an 8-inch Schmidt camera, along with medium-format, wide-angle lenses with a diffusion filter to create unique portraits of the constellations.

Another Mount Pinos regular is Michael Stecker. A radiologist by day, Stecker can be found every new-Moon period photographing the heavens. Having always had an interest in photography, he first became intrigued by astronomy during the 1986 apparition of Halley's comet. He then blended the two interests and began taking his first astrophotos with a Celestron Comet Catcher, a 200-mm lens, and a Super Polaris mount. Although he owns a Takahashi E200 hyperbolic astrograph as well as a Celestron C11 and a C14, he currently prefers using telephoto lenses and his Astro-Physics refractors for photography.

Stecker seems to relish tracking down lesser known objects, some of which cannot be found on many of today's charts, as well as "astrophysical" targets like the Cygnus X-1 region. For films, he prefers black-and-white over color and professes that some of his best work has been done with gas-hypered Kodak Technical Pan film. If you plan a trip to Mount Pinos on any given new-Moon weekend, you are sure to meet up with Michael - along with other Rat Pack regulars James Foster, Kim Zussman, and Martin Germano.

Orange Country Astronomers' Anza Site

Traveling well south and east from Mount Pinos across the Los Angeles basin, we reach the San Jacinto Mountains of Riverside County. Although some of these peaks exceed 10,000 feet, most of the summits average between 3,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation. It's in these lower ranges that the largest astronomy club in the United States, the Orange County Astronomers (OCA) developed a 20-acre observing site near the town of Anza off state highway 371. Located just 12 miles northeast of Palomar Observatory, the site is home to the club's observatory, its 22-inch f/8 Cassegrain, and numerous pads and observatories belonging to OCA members. At an elevation of 4,300 feet (1,310 meters), the site is in a region generally classified as Mediterranean: not a true desert, with significant precipitation as both rain and snow. But humidity is generally low, and the seeing can border on exceptional.

While the climatic conditions are quite good, the same cannot be said for the darkness of the sky. The large towns of Temecula and Palm Springs loom just 25 miles away, and light pollution from numerous housing and business developments in the Temecula Valley have brightened the site's sky noticeably within the past five years. Only on rare occasions, when a thick layer of coastal clouds blocks the lights below, do the night skies revert back to the quality of days long gone.

When acquired in the early 1980s, the Anza property was nothing more than a graded swath of earth. But the OCA mobilized its members to develop the site, and Anza Observatory was dedicated in September 1984. Sporting all the comforts of home, including a warming room, microwave, refrigerator, restroom and shower, the observatory has proved very useful during several of my own past astrophotography sessions.

The encroaching light pollution has not hampered everyone at Anza. One of the world's most successful amateur supernova hunters, Wayne Johnson, has used the club's big reflector and a custom-built CCD camera to discover six supernovas in the last eight years. "Mr. Galaxy" became an OCA member in 1982 after moving to California from Arizona.

When I asked what drives him to image all those galaxies night after night in search of supernovas, Johnson replied, "I suppose it's the fact that I like to see dynamic activity in something that ordinarily doesn't appear to change because it is so large and far away. It takes a galaxy the size of our own Milky Way some 200 million years to rotate. We're never going to see that in our lifetime, so to see some activity in an apparently static object is very interesting. The adrenaline rush is a feeling that everyone should experience. There is no way to describe it."

Beyond his supernova work, Johnson helps organize, promote, and run the popular AstroImage seminars, which draw some of today's most advanced astrophotographers and imagers. He has also served as OCA president, vice-chairman of the annual Riverside Telescope Makers Conference, vice-chairman of the Western Amateur Astronomers, and a regional chairman of the Astronomical League - among others! Even though he recently moved back to Arizona, Wayne remains very active in the Southern California astronomy scene.

Joshua Tree and Desert Center

Continuing east from Anza Observatory, over the towering peaks of the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa ranges, past Palm Springs and Indio, we arrive in one of the most beautiful parts of the California desert. Named after a picturesque, uniquely shaped tree found in this region, Joshua Tree National Park has been a favorite site of Southern California astrophotographers for decades.

Joshua Tree is a unique area. Two of the great deserts in North America - the higher, cooler, wetter Mojave and the lower, hotter, drier Colorado - converge here. Altitudes in the park generally range between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, though some of the higher peaks top 5,000 feet. One of the most popular campgrounds for astrophotographers is Cottonwood Spring, near the park's south entrance, which offers an elevation of 2,600 feet (790 meters), easy access from Interstate 10, and dark skies. It's little wonder this spot has become so popular.

One frequent observer is Allen Hwang, a physician and member of the Riverside Astronomical Society, who has been recording the night sky since 1986. He prefers shooting wide-field color images, a task made easier since acquiring a 6-inch Astro-Physics refractor and a Pentax 6-by-7 camera for prime-focus photography. Nebulas are favorite targets, Hwang says, and he also enjoys capturing the many colors of background stars and the Milky Way's dark nebulae.

Joshua Tree National Park does have one drawback, Hwang notes. "It seems to be directly in the flight path of everything flying into Southern California. It's not unusual to see a dozen airplanes at any particular time, and I seem to capture one on every other exposure." He and other members of the Riverside Astronomical Society have explored open-desert sites east of the park, near the town of Desert Center, which are gaining popularity for their even darker skies. One in particular, just south of Interstate 10 along Red Cloud Road, shows great promise.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

California's deserts are so vast and beautiful that you'd think it would be hard for one region to stand out above the rest. But in many observers' eyes, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is just that place. Located 55 miles (90 km) east of San Diego, this sprawling, 600,000-acre preserve is truly a land of extremes. Elevations within the park range from 6,193 feet near its western border in the San Ysidro Mountains to just 15 feet at the eastern end near the Salton Sea. Snow sometimes caps the higher mountain peaks during winter, while summer temperatures in low-lying valleys can exceed 120° Fahrenheit. Annual rainfall averages just over 6 inches.

Anza-Borrego features numerous campgrounds, both primitive and developed, so finding a place to set up for a night of astrophotography is quite easy. Some of the more popular ones are Culp Valley, Arroyo Salado, Blair Valley, and Dos Cabezas. While these are open year round, the best time to visit the park is during the cooler months of October to May. If developed campgrounds are not your style, the hundreds of miles of rugged dirt roads that run though the backcountry offer true solitude for astronomical pursuits.

Sky conditions are generally quite good within the park but can become exceptional when a cloudy marine layer snuffs out the lights of urban San Diego. At such times detail in the Milky Way is very apparent, with star clouds and dark nebulas etching its soft glow. The light pollution from San Diego and nearby Escondido is generally minimized by the dry air that usually blankets this region.

Among the talented astrophotographers lured to the sites in Anza-Borrego is David Churchill. Originally from England, Churchill has had an interest in astronomy since the age of eight. He moved to Aliso Viejo six years ago in an attempt to escape the ever-present cloud cover found over the British Isles, and he's now a director for a computer-software company in Orange County.

Since arriving in Southern California, Churchill has enjoyed much success in capturing beautiful images of the night sky. Using two Astro-Physics refractors, a 6-inch f/7 and a 4-inch f/5.8, he enjoys shooting wide field images on 120-format color emulsions. Churchill was among the first to use the UMAX PowerLook 3000 scanner on astronomical negatives. When not enjoying the remoteness of Anza-Borrego, he can usually be found in his backyard imaging the Moon and planets.

The Border: Tierra del Sol

If the globular cluster Omega Centauri (NGC 5139) is on your list of imaging targets, you may want to visit the observing site maintained by the San Diego Astronomy Association (SDAA) near the hamlet of Tierra del Sol. This site is about as far south as you can get in the state of California. Located 50 miles east of San Diego and a mile north of the U.S.-Mexican border at 32° 37' north latitude, Tierra del Sol sits on a high, rolling plain 3,720 feet (1,134 meters) in elevation. Its climate is classified as "high-desert" or possibly even Mediterranean, with an average annual precipitation of around 10 inches. Extending over Baja California, the southern horizon is very dark and ideal for shooting those southern showpieces you've always wanted to capture.

The sky over Tierra del Sol can be unpredictable. Lacking any mountain ranges to its west to block the moist airflow off the Pacific Ocean, the site sometimes experiences severe ground fog and dew. While this can create excellent seeing for lunar and planetary work, it can be disastrous for deep-sky photography. I have unfortunately experienced this situation more than once. But if wind conditions are reversed, with a slight breeze coming off the desert, the conditions are extremely dry with good transparency.

The site consists of an observatory, which houses a 22-inch f/7.5 Ritchey-Chrétien, numerous private pads, and a general observing field with concrete slabs where club members set up their own equipment. Power is available for anyone running computers or CCD cameras.

One person very familiar with the Tierra del Sol site is the current SDAA president, John Laborde. One of the founding members of the 32-year-old club, Laborde oversaw the mechanical design and construction of the club's big telescope. He photographs the heavens from Tierra del Sol with a variety of hand-built telescopes including a 10-inch f/5.6 Newtonian and a 8.7-inch f/3.6 Wright-Schmidt, guiding the exposures manually. Laborde finds astrophotography "rewarding and satisfying," especially when he gets good results. "I even find the time I spend guiding on unknown 6th- to 8th-magnitude guide stars relaxing and meditating," he adds, "and I've spent countless hours doing that!"

After a night of manually guided photography, Laborde turns to his computer, first to scan his negatives, then to enhance them using Picture Window and Adobe Photoshop.

The Laguna Mountains

Some 15 to 20 miles northwest of Tierra del Sol is a mountain range that many consider to have the best astronomical conditions in North America. The Laguna Mountains, part of the Cleveland National Forest in eastern San Diego County, generally exceed 5,000 feet in elevation with some of the higher peaks reaching 6,000 feet. Combine this elevation with a high percentage of clear nights, low humidity, excellent seeing, and dark skies, and you have what many astrophotographers would call paradise.

In fact, the site's many attributes have drawn the attention of professional and amateur astronomers alike. It is already the home of San Diego State University's Mount Laguna Observatory, which someday may boast a proposed 100-inch telescope. Atmospheric seeing conditions at the observatory are frequently between 1 and 2 arcseconds, with certain regions on the mountain averaging less than 1 arcsecond.

A popular Mount Laguna site among observers is Laguna Meadow Loop campground, off Sunrise Highway. Surrounded by beautiful mountain pines at an elevation of 5,500 feet, this enclave provides both an ideal location for astrophotography and a wonderful place for daytime activities such as hiking or bird watching. During my expeditions to the mountain, I have found that the dark, dry, and steady skies, coupled with the clean fresh smell of verdant mountain pines, make a combination that is hard to beat.

Southern California is a huge geographic region, diverse in both landscape and people. Like the pioneer explorers of old, the region's astrophotographers are constantly looking for new sites. Besides the selection of terrific astrophotography sites discussed here, Death Valley National Park, Mojave National Preserve, and Red Rock Canyon State Park also offer exquisite conditions for photography. Other sites may be known to only a few dedicated observers, and still more likely await discovery along a previously unexplored trail, atop some remote mountain, or down one of the countless dirt roads that crisscross the vast California deserts. Wherever these outposts exist, talented astrophotographers will undoubtedly find them in their continuing quest for the best sites - and the most spectacular images - on Earth.

This article, "The "State" of Astrophotography" is Copyright © Chris Cook.  The article may not be reproduced in any form without the prior written consent of the author. Violators of this copyright will be punished to the fullest extent of the law. 

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© Chris Cook 2000