First Time in the US: Gulf Photo Plus is Coming to Seattle.

On Assignment: How To Light a Comet

As you might imagine, I have a lot of photos on my walls at home. Some of the photos (and the people who took them) are famous. And others are of my family or some of the places we have been.

My very favorite photo (not counting the ones of my kids - I am a proud dad) is a wonderfully engineered shot of the Comet Hale-Bopp as it passed by the Earth in 1997. It was taken by John Moran, who was one of my early mentors when I was still a freshly minted photojournalist.

John was a very good general assignment photographer for the Gainesville Sun in Florida. But he excelled at dreaming up these spectacular feature photos that required months of advance thinking.

While he was shooting his daily grind of newspaper work, he would be arranging the details of a killer photo. Then it would show up, without warning, on the front of the Gainesville Sun one morning, prompting you to strongly consider getting into another line of work.

Like, say, plumbing.

Once he took a strobe out to an alligator-filled swamp at twilight, which made their eyes glow in a way made you consider your potential role as their dinner.

Another time, he made a multiple exposure of the sun's full track across the sky on the winter solstice.

And in 1997, he drove out to the countryside to shoot a picture of a comet. I am going to let him tell you in his own words how he did it. But first I want you to consider the exposure and light-balancing challenges he faced to pull it all onto one frame of Fujicolor 800 ASA 35mm film.

1) The background - which contains the very dim comet - is at about 5 minutes at f/2.8 at 800 ASA. And that's the bright part.

2) The background, from your Earthly perspective, appears to be slowly rotating. This rotation will come into play during your 5-minute exposure time.

3) The image will need a foreground element for added interest and depth. And that part happens to be darker than the background. So you'll need to light it.

And you are going to solve all of this with about $10 spent at the Home Depot. And a heckuva lot of ingenuity.

So, here's John, telling you how he did it. And then you can see the photo.

The World is a Miraculous Place: Comet Hale-Bopp, 1997
(By John Moran)

Of all the interests we have in childhood, it's hard to know which we will carry forth into adulthood. Though astronomy was my earliest passion in life, I was soon to learn that math is the language of science, and that my love for the night sky would not sustain a career in astronomy. But I discovered photography at about that time, and was soon happily bumbling my way through some really awful nighttime pictures. The seeds were sown.

I cannot recall all the pictures I've made that reflect my early interest in astronomy, but I do recall vividly a picture I didn't make, a beautiful picture of Comet Hyakutake that was published nationwide in 1996. Distributed by the Associated Press, the photo by Johnny Horne of the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer-Times, showed the comet drifting past the Big Dipper. I was impressed by its clarity and aesthetics, and I felt humbled by my lack of preparation to make a photo of this caliber. But the world of astronomy was already abuzz with the approach of Comet Hale-Bopp, and I resolved not to let the Big One get away. I had a year to prepare...

I wanted to make a picture of the comet that not only was beautiful, but was clearly grounded in the landscape of Florida. Among the many impressive natural features of this place we call home, live oaks -- dead or alive -- hold particular allure. I had just the right tree in mind for my picture. For a hundred years and counting, comets, eclipses, meteors and more have added drama to the night sky beneath which this ancient live oak has borne silent witness.

Deep-sky photography typically involves long time exposures with precisely guided instruments that track the apparent movement of the stars through the night sky. I consulted with astronomy professor Alex Smith at the University of Florida, with whom I had taken an introductory course twenty years earlier. He showed me a simple-but-effective tracking device he had made to photograph the return of Halley's Comet in 1986. I built my own, based on his design. Called a barn-door tracker, the gizmo consists of a pair of 1x4 boards joined with a hinge that is aligned to turn on axis with the rotation of the Earth. The rig is anchored to a tripod and the camera is mounted on a ballhead attached to the top board.
I replaced the hinge pin with a brass tube for sighting on the North Star, and by manually turning at 1 rpm a 1/4-20 thumbscrew offset 11-7/16" from the hinge pivot, the boards spread, moving the camera, slowly... The world is a miraculous place, and it was a beautiful experience sitting alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere with my little comet tracker, hand-cranking my camera in silent synchronicity with the Universe.
The photograph was made with a Nikon FE2 camera and 35mm lens on Fuji Super G 800 film. The exposure was 5 minutes at f/2.8. The tracking motion, while "freezing" the stars (and comet), creates a ghostly blur in the oak tree and the distant tree line. Radio-triggered strobes with amber gels cross-illuminate the tree. Two-and-a-half minutes into the exposure, a Nikon soft-focus filter was placed onto the lens, causing the celestial objects to glow around their central points of light.

Nice, huh?

Everybody needs good, early influences. I was very lucky to have John as one of mine.

He eventually left his newspaper staff job to follow his true calling and become a full-time, Florida-based nature photographer. You can see more of his work at

There, you'll find many different prints (including the comet shot and the alligator photo) which can be purchased.

He also has a book, Journal of Light, if you would like to own more of his work.

All photos in this article © John Moran, 1997.

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Blogger James Pratt said...

WOW! John Moran is an inspiration. What a photographer. Thanks for the link.

September 17, 2006 12:12 AM  
Blogger David said...

He sure is.

September 17, 2006 12:47 AM  
Blogger John said...

Very nice. I'm not that good. I did take a photo of Orion once - it is posted on Flickr here.

I like your site - same format as mine - he he - although I have an interest in astronomy, it is only an interest I'm afraid.

September 17, 2006 6:31 PM  
Blogger Photoburner said...

LOL it's hard to believe that you worked for the Mullet Wrapper as we refer to the Gainesville Sun down here.

The photography is the only good thing in that paper. I recall both of those shots, I think the NPR station was selling prints of them.

September 17, 2006 10:27 PM  
Blogger David said...

Actually, I worked for the Alligator (UF) at the time. The Sun was a very good photo paper back then, and we were naive enough to think that we were their visual competition.

September 17, 2006 10:29 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Great post David!

I was actually born and raised in Gainesville until I moved to Atlanta in '99, and as soon as I saw John Moran's name in your post I remembered why I knew that name!

September 18, 2006 10:32 AM  
Blogger Darren said...

I dislike adding the soft-focus filter. Why not paint the comet tail a little more with a flashlight in sky, while we are at it? Not sure how he managed to turn the barndoor drive screw at 1 RPM AND put a filter on at the same time. Just doing 1 RPM (accurately) requires a lot of concentration.

Otherwise, congratulations on discovering simple guided astrophotography. Google "barndoor drive" to find numerous plans, including some driven by stepper motors.

I did the same thing for Hyakutake years ago. He left out a very important step. How do you determine 1 RPM when doing it by hand (the passing of time). My solution was to hang an old "ticking" wristwatch over my glasses at my ear and count. Trying to think "1/4 turn every 15 seconds" (smoothly) did the trick.

He also left out important ISO information. The higher the speed the more stars you will pick up in the picture (and the more sensitive to ambient light on the foreground).

Also, the longer the lens, the more sensitive it will be to tracking errors. Normal to wide angle lenses will be most forgiving.

This whole thing is much tougher for photographers in the Southern Hemisphere because they have no star as close to their celestial pole as Polaris is to our celestial pole.

Finally, your headline is (intentionlly?) misleading. You don't light astronomical objects, you catch their light on film. Any lighting is for foreground only, and you generally don't have to do that either. It often happens unintentionally as in this photograph of the Northern Lights taken from Nebraska by Ryan McGinnis. Check out the shadows by ambient light on the barn.

January 11, 2007 4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's great that you introduce people to so many new ideas. This one isn't new to me, but it's the cheapest way to take great astrophotos. I can't afford a telescope worth thousands to piggyback a camera so it's guided! On the critical tip, the most impotant thing in the tracker is the distance from the CENTRE of the hinge to the CENTRE of the screw must be 11 7/16th inches! the further off the less acurate the tracking, and it becomes worse the longer the track.
Using the right screw is super important too but it's the same size as normal camera thread so thats easy.
In the example I like foreground and lightpainting, you need context in my opinion, however I gotta agree with the last post about the softening filter. The whole point to a tracker is to get a shaper image than you could by just sticking the camera on a tripod, so why would you deliberatly fuzz things up?
Night shots have been one of favorites since I saw them, and I've been trying them again, just digital now. Lot's of good info out there if this interests you too. My favorite book is "splendors of the universe" by Terence Dickinson, and Jack Newton. It's ten years old (my version anyway) so it doesn't deal with much digi, but a great general resource that covers a lot of ground. Pretty pictures too.

Happy hunting all.

PS thanks for the site David, I like the penny pinching approach and have learned a LOT. I just wish I could justify the expense of the PW's. Keep on Keepin on.

June 27, 2007 3:02 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I've always been frustrated that I'll never have a motorised mount for astro photos. That mount however is bloody brillant. Thanks for the story behind that very cool photo.

March 01, 2008 5:26 AM  
Blogger TMaher said...

What a great photo! I've always been interested in low light photography using manipulated light for the foreground and letting the sky do what it does best.. Dazzle!

I took this photo using two lights, one hand held to paint with and the other atop a 10ft ladder out of the frame and to the left..

April 03, 2008 12:03 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I went out to Oregon on a recent vacation with a similar idea in mind after camping in the Colorado mountains last year. I had a tripod, making it much easier, and two "assistants" - wife and brother in law. I lit the foreground in (my brother-in-law)this shot with a little LED squeeze light for about 1.5 seconds.You need to see it LARGE. ;)

August 17, 2010 9:58 AM  

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