Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Jerry Allen, astrophotographer from Oyster Bay, keeps looking up

The Cave Nebula
Photo by Jerry Allen
When Jerry Allen's grandmother complained to young Jerry: "there used to be many more stars before" or "in summer there used to be clouds of stars crossing the sky" it was falling on deaf ears. Then one day, on a camping trip far away from the civilization, Jerry lifted his head to gaze at the stars above him and finally saw the cloud, the Milky Way, of the grandma's tales. He was impressed.

Orion Nebula and NGC 1977
Photo by Jerry Allen
In his 20's Jerry came across a telescope. He attempted to identify various objects in the galaxy, which originally looked to him like a white, blurry blob. Jerry started educating himself in astronomy. Then life, with its own gyrations, took over for some years. In 2007 Jerry returned to astronomy. He joined a local astronomy club Amateur Observers Society of New York where he found a supportive mentor and a group of like-minded colleagues. Jerry bought a good telescope to augment and a camera to record what he saw. This developed into a real passion. Jerry now spends a solid portion of good nights on watching the skies and recording the movements of the celestial bodies.

How does astrophotography differ from regular photo taking? For starters, you need a good refractor telescope with an excellent, special design camera. You will take a series of shots of differing exposure to catch the more or less luminous parts of objects, you will repeat it with different filters. All this while the sky moves above you and forces you to adjust the position of your equipment. You will interpose the images in a photo editing software and eventually produce a final photo.

Jerry Allen at his Oyster Bay observatory
Photos by Ewa Rumprecht

What challenges await an astrophotographer? Light pollution is one. Jerry takes various steps to limit its impact. To block off neighborhood lights he built himself a small observatory in the backyard of his house. Ambient light - the light of New York City, Long Island villages, even the water, is a problem, as well. Jerry acquired various filters to block it off. In spite of all the precautions he still has to post-process his images to remove the noise from them - an arduous task that can take up to 20 hours per image.

The Pelican
Photo by Jerry Allen
Another challenge is the scarcity of nights good for star gazing. Every month has really only one potentially perfect night - the new moon; nights closely surrounding it have to do. The coveted new moon night might be cloudy or it may rain prohibiting Jerry from opening the roof of his observatory.

Why go through all this trouble, you may ask? Beauty, serenity in spite of the dramatic events eons away, humility, curiosity, challenge. You can find it all in Jerry's spectacular photographs.

Owl Nebula
Photo by Jerry Allen
Jerry enjoys star gazing in winter as nights are longer and it's cold, the equipment likes cold temperatures. He cherishes summers as many colorful objects parade through the skies, including the Milky Way.

What is on Jerry's wish list? Bigger and better equipment, moving his observatory to a darker place allowing for short exposure, crisp images not marred by passing planes. Jerry would love to observe the skies in the Southern Hemisphere to see the famous Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, chaotic and less rhythmic than our own galaxy. In the meantime, he just loves to live by the iconic advice by Jack Horkheimer of the Star Gazer - he keeps looking up!

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