On The Plains Of San Agustin, New Mexico
There's weird stuff in the desert. Imagine driving hours away from the city, down an endless road to the middle of nowhere and coming across 27 enormous satellite dishes that are 82 feet wide and weighing 100 tons each. Oh yeah, and they can all turn and look at you too. What the what?
If you've seen the movie, Contact, you may recognize this place as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array, more commonly known as the VLA. The VLA is so remote that it doesn't even have an address other than The Plains Of San Agustin.
To find this desert science machine, take HWY 60 west from Socorro for about an hour and then follow the signs. For more specific directions, enter these coordinates into a GPS 34 04'43.497N, 107 37'05.819W or visit their website here. 34 04'43.4907 37'05
What is the VLA?
The Very Large Array is a group of 27 radio antenna that work together, collectively creating a telescope that is up to 22 miles across. (Now that's some Dish Network!) Each of the 27 dishes gathers natural radio waves traveling through space from distant objects such as black holes, galaxies and baby stars.
What does the VLA do?
In a nutshell, the Very Large Array keeps an eye on space. The radio telescopes at the VLA see a part of the light spectrum, known as radio waves, that are invisible to the human eye.
Radio waves reveal previously concealed activities of stars, galaxies and planets, they also map the chemical workings of the gas and dust clouds that create them. Optical telescopes cannot see into these places because these same clouds block their view but incredibly detailed images can be created by combining the data from both radio and optical telescopes.
Unhindered, radio waves can travel billions of years across the vastness of space, providing the VLA with data critical to constructing a timeline of the Universe.
Visiting the VLA
The VLA is open daily from 8:30am until sunset. There is a museum, informative films, several photos of Jodie Foster, a gift shop and a self guided walking tour that includes some cool stuff. That being said, if you really want to see what the VLA is all about, I highly recommend taking the guided tour. Twice a month, on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays, the VLA offers guided tours led by their staff scientists. Admission is $6 and it is well worth it.
I've been out to visit the VLA twice. The first time was several years ago and I just showed up and did not go on the tour. It was ok, but the array was in one of it's more spread out configurations with only the one antenna on the walking tour being close by. The second time, Johnpaul and I planned our visit so we could attend the First Saturday Guided Tour and it was so much better! The director of the VLA was there along with a couple other scientists, they provided an in-depth explanation of how the VLA works and we even got to visit the control room to see the whole thing in action. For the photographers out there, the control room has an observation deck where you can get some photos that you wouldn't otherwise be able to get. Additionally, the array was in a much tighter configuration this time which made the photos even better.
The Very Large Array is very large indeed!
It can be somewhat difficult to show the scale of just how large these radio telescopes really are. To put it into perspective, the dish itself is 82 feet across which is about the same size as two large school buses sitting end-to-end. With regard to height, if there were people standing around the base of the dish pictured above, they would be about half as tall as the concrete footings that the dish sits on. Look carefully at the stair case at the bottom to get an estimate of height.
The Whisper Dishes
My favorite thing on the self guided walking tour is the whisper dishes. There were a lot of people standing around them so I didn't get any photos but they are the coolest thing! The Whisper Dishes are a small scale demonstration model of how the VLA works. They are two dish shaped concrete installations and to demonstrate how they work requires at least two people. One person stands at each dish and the person at the first dish whispers very quietly while the person at the 2nd dish (that is about 50 feet away) can hear the otherwise inaudible whispers clear as day as if the other person were whispering directly in their ear. So the moral of this story is... don't be talkin' smack around the whisper dishes!
Spend some time in Magdalena, New Mexico
For those traveling west from Socorro, HWY 60 goes through Magdalena on the way to the VLA. Magdalena is a small settlement that is about 30% ghost town. For photographers visiting from out of state, Magdalena is a worth while stop. I live close enough to go back out there on any given weekend so sometime soon Johnpaul and I are going to return to Magdalena and make a day of it. So much cool stuff to see there!
This trip to the VLA was on November 2, 2019. All photos were shop with a Canon Powershot Elph 360 and edited with Fotor.
Pushing The Boundaries Of Smartphone Photography
Have you ever dreamed of taking great photos of the moon with your smartphone but when you try, the moon looks like this?
That tiny speck in the sky is probably not what you envisioned but if you try to get close with the smartphone's digital zoom, so much resolution is lost that the moon looks like an Atari game from the 80's with big square pixels and no detail. Clearly that's not going to work, so what to do then?
The Telescope Set Up
The first step in this process is to get the moon lined up and in-focus in the telescope. If you're using a manual telescope, it will have to be readjusted several times throughout this process because the moon will rotate itself out of the frame every couple of minutes.
The second step is to select the (telescope) eye piece that will render the best results. I recommend the eye piece with the least amount of magnification. On my Cassini 80x800 telescope, it's the 25mm eye piece. In my opinion, the 25mm is the easiest to use for a few reasons: #1, it has the most surface area making it easier to align the camera lens over it while still keeping the entire moon in the frame; #2, it brings the moon into sharp focus but with enough extra room that the telescope only has to be re-positioned every couple of minutes instead of every few seconds; #3, it creates the least amount of "camera shake". In this instance, it's not the camera that's shaking but actually the Earth. The higher the magnification of the telescope, the more noticeable the vibration. There are some complicated equations to determine the minimal shutter speed needed to eliminate camera shake based on the focal length of the lens but since we're shooting with a telescope and a smartphone, never mind all that and just use the 25mm eye piece.
The Camera Set Up
#2. Once you see the moon on the phone screen, the next step is to spot-meter and focus by tapping the moon with a finger or thumb. This tells the smart phone camera where to focus and what to meter the exposure on.
#3. When the moon is in focus and exposed correctly, shoot the photo! How do you know when the moon is exposed correctly? You should be able to see all the detail with no areas that are blown-out or so bright that no detail is visible. In short, the moon should look the same on the phone screen as it does to your eye when you look through the telescope. This part is especially important because if the image is over exposed, there is no way to recover this detail after the fact.
Many telescopes come with a smart phone attachment that will supposedly hold the phone in the correct position over the eye piece. If you can get that to work, more power to ya, but I haven't found this to be a good method. I use the smart phone attachment but only as a guide to steady my hand. Because the positioning of the phone lens has to be so precise, it can be very difficult to keep it in the right spot while also tapping the screen to get focus and exposure and then hitting the "shutter" to take the photo. Once positioned correctly, the smart phone attachment makes an excellent guide to assist in aligning the camera lens with the eye piece of the telescope.
The other reason the smart phone attachment is only useful as a guide is because the camera lens needs to not be touching the eye piece of the telescope. To determine the exact distance for optimal image quality requires experimentation but should be within an inch. What you don't want to do is to rest the phone directly on the eye piece. This will usually be too close but the other problem is that (while trying to do everything else at the same time) it's easy to start pushing down on the phone which in turn can push down on the eye piece thus throwing the telescope out of focus. It is not possible to achieve a focused image with the camera unless the telescope is in sharp focus.
Trial And Error
Not gonna lie, photographing the moon with a smartphone and a telescope is not the easiest thing to do but with practice and experimentation, excellent results can be achieved. I've been working at it for about eight months now and, while at first I found the whole process to be time consuming and frustrating, I can now usually set up the telescope and get my images in about 10 - 15 minutes. The secret is patience and practice.
The foundation of creating great images is always to shoot a great image in the first place. By that I mean, the basics should be in order. The image should be in focus and exposed correctly with relatively good composition. Post processing is not a crutch or magic wand to turn bad photos into good photos, rather it is a tool to make (already) good photos better.
I try to keep the entire process in the phone so the app I like to use for editing photos is called Snapseed and is available for both iPhone and Android. Make your rotation, cropping, and exposure tweaks with this app.
Be advised that a reflector telescope turns everything upside down so the moon will be upside down in your photos and will need to be rotated during the post process.
Happy Shooting And Good Luck!
The most important thing is to keep trying. Please feel free to ask questions by posting them in the comments section at the end of this post.
All detailed moon photos shot with Motorola MotoX4 and Cassini 80x800 telescope, edited in-phone with Snapseed.
Can't You Read The Sign?
Ramah is a tiny little town on HWY 53 southwest of Grants, New Mexico. In and of itself, it is not a place worth traveling too but it is on the way to some more noteworthy destinations such as the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, El Morro National Monument and the Bandera Ice Cave.
Ramah is part of the Navajo Nation and that means you had better read the signs. If the sign says that the speed limit is 20mph (and the signs do say that), it is safe to assume they're not messing around, especially if you "ain't from around here". Additionally, if the sign says "No Trespassing", it is not a suggestion and, with the police station, courthouse and jail all less than half a mile away, I highly recommend shooting from the safe-side of the fence.
This abandoned farm house is at the edge of town and behind a barbed wire fence with a locked gate. Word to the wise: don't climb through the fence.
All photos shot with a Motorola MotoX4 and edited with Snapseed.
Time Lapse Video
The above time lapse video was shot with a Canon EOS 80d and Canon 17mm-40mm f4 L lens on February 5, 2019 from my back yard in Los Lunas, New Mexico. While the 80d was busy shooting the time lapse, I shot the still photos with my iPhone SE.
Wind + Clouds = Awesome Time Lapse Video
The above video was shot on February 4, 2019 from my backyard in Los Lunas, New Mexico using a Canon EOS 80D with Canon 17mm-40mm f4 L lens. The camera ran for approximately 2.5 hours with a frame rate of 3 seconds. Los Lunas Mountain is visible at the bottom of the frame.
While my 80D was busy shooting video, I shot the other still photos with my iPhone SE.
I am DeAnna Vincent, fine art and portrait photographer in Los Lunas, New Mexico. These are the photos from my everyday adventures.