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Shooting Stars

author: Denny Manchee / photography: Lynn Hilborn

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From his backyard shed near Grafton, astrophotographer Lynn Hilborn takes sublime images of the night sky that are published all over the world.

It wasn't enough that Lynn Hilborn spent the last 23 years of his career keeping the Red Rocket running, 10 of them as Deputy General Manager of the Toronto Transit Commission. He was the guy who slept with one eye on the phone, who got the calls when there was a murder, suicide or fire. "We carried a million and a half people every day. Failure was not an option," says the 66-year- old. The hours were brutal, the sleep deficiency massive, so what does he do in retirement? Move to Grafton and pursue a night hobby!

"In the early 2000s as I was looking towards retirement, I started to notice all these gorgeous pictures in magazines, pictures I'd never seen before," says Hilborn, who hung up his Metropass in 2007. The digital camera had revolutionized photography, and the convergence of new hardware and software gave amateurs the tools that were once the preserve of university observatories. "Back then, I didn't know much about cameras, astronomy or the night sky, and I knew nothing about Photoshop or processing, which is half the battle. But when I saw the colours, the vibrancy in those early digital photographs, I was captivated."

Comparing the quality of images in the pre-digital era, Hilborn pulls out a 1997 book called Splendors of the Universe by Terence Dickinson and Jack Newton, which was the apex of astrophotography at the time. "That wouldn't make the cut today," he says. "Being able to manipulate the data – enhance the signal and minimize the noise – has made all the difference in the world." That and the end of reciprocity failure. Huh? That's when film fogs during long exposures; it's not an issue in the digital realm. "Some of my shots are an hour long," says Hilborn, his blue eyes alive and engaged behind no-nonsense wire-framed specs.

Fuelled by passion, he went from zero to 100 in less than eight years, and Terence Dickinson, Canada's guru of amateur astronomy, says Hilborn is now among the top five amateur astrophotographers in the country. He's even on the masthead of Dickinson's sophisticated magazine SkyNews. Not bad for a guy operating from a prefab garden-shed cum observatory down by Lake Ontario. The roof is on rails and slides off with ease, revealing a complex rig of optical devices (see for yourself on Hilborn's site Ontario/). This is where he hangs out most nights when the sky is clear, often spending hours taking successive shots that are then stacked into a final image. His grown kids know it's tough to plan birthday parties and other events and expect Dad to show up, because if night sky conditions are good, Hilborn will be in his WhistleStop Observatory (so named because of the nearby train tracks and level crossing).

Or he might be on location, at Nawautin Nature Sanctuary, for example. This spring I received the following email from Watershed copy editor and fellow Graftonite Tom Groot. "I encountered a crouching Lynn Hilborn in the Nawautin Nature Sanctuary earlier today, when (before I recognized him) I thought he was someone taking photographs in the direction of the lake from the covered bridge. It turned out that he was using a sophisticated device to determine what he needed to know about the position of a celestial event he intended to capture at 4:30 a.m. Yes, A.M."

"What was unique about that image," says Hilborn, "was the reflection of the stars in the pond. When starlight reflects off water it polarizes and the colours become very vibrant. It was a 20-second exposure at 1600 ISO. The whole idea was to capture the Milky Way in as much detail as I could, capture the bridge and the pond and capture the reflection of the Milky Way stars in the pond. That meant no wind. It had to be dead still. But there was a beaver in the pond and I could have wrung its neck! Every once in a while he'd swim by and create little waves, and my stars would go. I was there for three hours taking 20-second exposures. I was waiting for the right calmness and I had my winter coat on and I was standing absolutely still and the ticks were coming up my legs. I was there from one in the morning till four, but I got the magic shot. It's only 20 seconds, but it's enough."

That's called suffering for your art, and it is an art form, as you can see on these pages, albeit a technical one. Hilborn considers himself more artist than scientist, and is concerned with framing, composition, lighting and, particularly, colour. "Just as painters, past and present, have mixed the pigments made of star-born elements – iron, copper, cadmium, arsenic, cobalt, zinc, cinnabar and gypsum – today's astrophotographer can capture and 'paint' the elements and energy of the universe," he writes.

This avuncular, wry gentleman in his khaki pants and sensible shoes is poetic about his passion: "The sky is awash with dust, cosmic dust, stardust, the elemental remains of ancient stars that have seeded the universe with all the atoms that make up our very bodies. The calcium in our bones and the iron in our blood come from the remains of ancient stars. We are in fact stardust. These pictures capture dark dust lanes in the Milky Way, the elemental glow of excited hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur as they are bombarded by the energy of nearby stars."

What do astronomers think about the explosion of amateur astrophotographers fiddling with colour? Hilborn says there are two camps: purists, who believe images should be just what the human eye can see, and a more scientifically-bent group of people, who say the purpose of this photography is to contrast the elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur are the three most common elements to shoot with filters, and there are two accepted palettes – the Hubble and the Canada, France, Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) – that assign elements to red, green and blue channels. Hydrogen is red in the CFHT palette and makes for dramatic images like Hilborn's Running Man nebula and M42 'star factory' in Orion as seen in the photo above.

Hilborn loves colour and is therefore not a purist when it comes to his palette. "Who's to say the human eye is the be-all and end-all? A dog doesn't see the colours a human eye sees; a reptile would see it differently. Maybe an alien sees it this way," he says, flipping though the gorgeous images in his self-published book Time Machine.

As for the amateur's contribution to science, Dickinson says, "Before about 1850, there were very few professional astronomers employed by universities or national research institutes to study the stars and galaxies with telescopes. Almost everybody who did this was independently wealthy or had a patron, usually royalty." Today, most amateurs do it for the aesthetic rewards. "Professional astronomers are scientists, amateur astronomers are enthusiasts who do it for their own edification and pleasure and appreciation of nature," adds Dickinson. "Humanity at large benefits from both – especially amateur astrophotography."

I can see why amateur astronomers prefer to focus on aesthetics, since the science is truly mind bending and takes brains like Stephen Hawking's to begin to fathom the unfathomable. Hilborn describes his own quest to capture a quasar and the path of thinking he started down. "I didn't want to go too far, but I started thinking, this object is 11 billion light years away and it's touching me, like I'm connected to it. Physically, it's touching me because photons from this quasar travelled 11 billion light years across the universe and came down the tube of my telescope and landed on the sensor of my camera and caused it to release an electron in the CCD chip to create an image. That just astounded me. It came up on the screen. It's just a small dot on the screen among thousands of other dots, but I know exactly where it is because I studied it, I planned for it, I knew that if I captured something in that little corner of the screen, that was the quasar. And I knew geometrically how it associated with all the other stars around it, and that was it. So I got it and I was just astounded. (His shot was published in the Sept./Oct. 2014 issue of SkyNews.) You couldn't do it visually with your eye and you couldn't do it with a film camera, and until you got into really cooled cameras and long exposures, you didn't have a hope in hell of capturing a quasar."

"But there it was, and I started wondering... it's 11 billion light years away, the earth is four-and-half to five billion years old, and if there's a guy up there taking a picture of me. I don't exist yet. I know he/it's there, but it doesn't know I'm here. OK, that's enough, it's time to take the garbage out!" He laughs
at the cosmicness of it all, while I am suddenly flooded with Joni Mitchell's anthem to Woodstock:

We are stardust
Billion-year-old carbon
We are golden
Caught in the devil's bargain
And we've got to get ourselves
back to the garden

Or the shed, as it were. NASA picked up Hilborn's brilliant shot, Launch to Lovejoy, and published it as the picture of the day on January 22 this year. That was huge – 1.5 million followers. What's next for the self-effacing guy at the WhistleStop Observatory? "The biggest thrill is the next object, the next picture," he says. Sleep would be good, too.




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