Looking into the eye of the sun
John Hicks of Northern Ontario, Canada, has made a good living as a professional landscape architect, helping develop Canadian parks for most of his life.
But it’s his strong passion for his hobby which draws his eyes skyward and has led to him writing books about it.
Hicks, along with his wife, make their winter pilgrimage every year to Sanibel, where he has the time to practice his hobby of astronomy and astrophotography. Recently, after two winters of trying, he captured one of the most elusive subjects he has ever caught in his 35 years of astrophotography – nabbing a “Green Flash” on camera.
“The ‘normal’ green flash took me hundreds of frames to capture over a period of two winters at Jamaica Beach on Sanibel,” Hicks said. “The ‘inverted’ green flash was caused by an inverted air layer over the distant ocean . I have never seen another in print or anywhere else – it is unique and possibly the only photo ever taken to show it.”
Hicks used a 1,300 millimeter astrograph (solar telescope) and a stock digital Nikon D-70 camera body.
The Green Flash occurs pretty fast, like 1/58th of a second fast. One cannot predict or auto photo it, either.
“Since the last minutes of the setting sun require an exposure latitude of 1/8,000 second (full disk on the ocean horizon) to 1/60 second (at its last glimmer on the ocean surface) exposure it has to be set manually, with your camera on manual setting,” Hicks said. “Its a real flurry of photographic ability to get this elusive phenomena – but worth it.”
Hicks picked up his hobby over 35 years ago, when a friend introduced him to astronomy and invited him to his observatory in his backyard.
Hicks fell lock, stock and barrel for astronomy and dove right into it head first by purchasing his first a 2,000 millimeter diameter telescope in 1978.
“That got me hooked and I’ve done it ever since,” Hicks said.
Although he still describes himself as an amateur in astronomy, he has enveloped himself in it by reading up on it continually and going to conventions every year for the last 35 years.
“I studied a lot of astronomy and although one may not think of it this way, the night sky is a beautiful landscape to look at,” Hicks said. “It’s so expansive.”
After being inspired by his friend’s observatory, Hicks decided to build his own domed one on his property. He used a steel frame and aluminum, and looks as good as the day he built it 35 years ago, Hicks said.
As development started sprouting around his home, thus adding light pollution to the dark skies, and his desire to study a fluid subject, he was pointed to solar photography – or photography of the sun.
“The sun is always changing, it’s fluid, waxes and wanes,” Hicks said. “Sometimes it’s very bland on one side, but you never know what’s coming around the corner. It’s an exciting object, because it never stays the same. You never get bored with it, unlike Saturn or Mars, which stay the same.”
Hicks became a rarity as a solar photographer, since the filters needed to do it are very expensive. The first filter needed is a white-light filter, which is a necessity, because otherwise pointing a telescope at the sun without the protection of one, will burn a hole in your cornea.
He purchased a four-inch diameter telescope, with solar filter costing as much as $1,000 a shot. The white-light filter sees just one part of the sun, the photosphere, which reduces the glare.
“You can capture flares, or prominences, which are gas and plasma,” Hicks explained. “The gas is thick, and a prominence can weigh as much as a piece of Earth. As the sun rotates, the prominence arches and you can see the fuel lines distorted by the fusion process. The plasma twists and snarls, then it snaps and shoots out as high as 45,000 kilometers, but then gravity snaps it back again.”
The biggest fallacy people make when they see a photo of a sun prominence, sunspot or galaxy, is that it’s just one photo.
Far from it.
In actuality, that one astro-image can be made up of 800 different frames, which are compounded into one. A free program named, Registax, stacks all the images one can take either by still photo, or the most common way of high-definition video.
The program saves the best pixels of the 800 frames and throws out the worst ones.
“It’s totally irrational photography,” Hicks said.
According to Google search, the sun is 92,960,000 miles away from Earth. That’s quite a haul to try and capture images of the sun from a dark field on Earth.
There are plenty of obstacles in the way from lens to sun, as well, Hicks said.
“On a high humidity day, there is lots of water vapor bouncing around and over 100 kilometers of muck, dust, dirt, toxins and chemicals,” Hicks said. “You are shooting through all that, like a cosmic soup. If you could get above that, like NASA’s (satellite) telescopes, you wouldn’t need as much equipment as you do down here.”
Add in the fact, the lens are set to a millionth of an inch accuracy and the sun is always moving, photographing the sun is a challenging process. That also includes the price tag of the telescope, lens and filters, as well as a good tripod to keep the entire set-up stable.
Hicks also has made a name for himself in the construction of observatories. He already has written a book on how to build a roll-away roof observatory and is very close to publishing another one on how to construct a domed observatory.
“Making a dome and bending the pieces to fit it is very difficult,” Hicks said. “But once you have it, it can last a very long time. There are advantages and disadvantages to each the domed and roll-away roof observatories, too.”
The sun is an ever-changing landscape. It’s fluid and very unpredictable. Capturing some of its essence is challenging and that’s the very attraction to Hicks, which there are only a few people who photo the sun with as much passion as he does.
The 74-year-old Hicks loves creating parks and landscaping destinations here on the ground, but his passion continues way above us, where only God knows what is happening.
His photos help us see a slice of just that.