The Remarkable Astrophotography of Kent Kirkley
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I met Kent Kirkley at the Texas Star Party three years ago. He introduced himself to me and showed me a remarkable little gadget; a 10-degree diameter field of view film holder for the Celestron/Epoch Instruments Schmidt camera. With this device, skyshooters can expand an 8-inch Schmidt camera's field from the standard 4.5 X 6.5 degrees on 35 mm film to a circular field a full 10 degrees in diameter using film chips cut from 120, 220, or 4X5 inch sheet film. I had known for a long time that an 8-inch Schmidt camera's useful field of view extends beyond the normal film holder's field. I had also heard that astrophotographers in Germany had hand fabricated larger film holders based on the design perfected by Hans Vehrenberg, thus the name "Vehrenberg holder". Now I finally saw one.
I immediately fell in love with the huge field provided by the Vehrenberg film holder. They reminded me very much of the photographs E. E. Barnard took at the turn of the century when he pioneered wide-field astrophotography. At the time, I was just starting to gather the illustrations for my book "Wide-Field Astrophotography", to be published by Willmann-Bell. Kent graciously agreed to let me use his fine photographs in my book. Later, I realized that these great images needed a wider audience, so i asked Kent if he minded if I also displayed about a dozen of them on my web page.
In order to use Kirkley's photos in my book, either the original negatives or an 8 X 10 print had to be scanned, depending on the nature of the original negative. The negatives were scanned onto a Kodak Pro Photo CD with the 64/Base format at 4096 X 6144 pixels. The prints were scanned with a regular flatbed scanner. Needless to say, as good as scanners are today, they did Kirkley's photos no justice. Darkroom prints from the original negatives are breathtaking, but the digital reproductions shown here suffer from lack of scanner dynamic range, and thus show blocked up highlights and loss of really faint detail. Further, the images shown here have been reduced to 1000 X 1000 pixels. Shrinking their width fourfold was brutal to the star images, so they were sharpened using the unsharp mask tool in Photoshop. They were then converted to low quality .JPGs in order to download in reasonable time.
One of the haunting beauties of Kirkley's images is familiar wide-field targets that take up nearly the whole field with the standard Schmidt film holder now seem to lost is the vastness of space. Kent's photos thus place infinite reaches of the cosmos back into proper perspective. So, you be the judge! The images on the next page show Kent Kirkley's Schmidt photography is among the best in the country.
The Standard and the 10-Degree "Vehrenberg" Film Holder.
At the top is the factory-supplied 35 mm roll film holder for an 8-inch Schmidt camera. Compared to the film holder alone (middle), the device would seem to block a considerable amount of incoming starlight. But in fact, the total percentage of occultation is small compared to the overall aperture of the camera. At the bottom is the hand fabricated “Vehrenberg” film holder for the same instrument. As evidenced by the resulting negatives of the same celestial object, the standard holder’s 4.5-by-6.5 degree field of view is dwarfed by the Vehrenberg’s 10-degree circular field of view. The special film folder uses large chips of film cut from 120, 220, or 4X5 film.
Photo by Kent Kirkley
Kent Kirkley's Celestron/Epoch Instruments 8-inch Schmidt Camera.
The Vehrenberg film holder is shown installed in Kent Kirkley's 8-inch Schmidt camera.
Unlike the factory supplied 35 mm film holders, the Vehrenberg holder is not prefocused. The hand crafted Vehrenberg holder must be hand focused through a painstaking series of fine adjustments with set screws on the back of the holder.
Photo by Kent Kirkley
Although very artistic as a child, my interests changed to astronomy during the space race of the late 1950's. The constellations were projected on the ceiling of my room and etched on my memory with the aid of my Spitz Junior Planetarium. I stood in awe of the images I saw through my homemade 2-inch f20 refractor made of stovepipe and lashed to the pole supporting the front porch of my house. After building a 4 1/4 inch f10 Newtonian reflector from Edmund Scientific and a pipe fitting equatorial mount from the hardware store I attempted to duplicate the wonderful images of the heavens I was seeing in books and magazines such as Sky & Telescope. As I watched the first few prints develop in the red glow of a safelight, little did I know that my profession and my hobby had been cast.
The ensuing years found me photographing all kinds of things, other than the stars. Junior high faded into high school and high school into college. I began down the path to become a professional astronomer at the University of Texas during the Harlan Smith era but was soon disenchanted when I discovered that professional astronomy was not as observational as I had thought. My astronomy interest waned but my passion for photography grew.
The late 1960's turbulence descended on me with the Charles Whitman University of Texas Tower Sniper incident which I photographed in 1966. The Vietnam War was full blown and in an attempt to avoid the conflict I enlisted in the Navy Reserve becoming a combat photographer, and was promptly sent to Vietnam. I spent many a dark night unable to photograph anything, although the stars shone with unusual intensity.
For many years astronomy took a back seat to profession, family and future. I moved to Dallas, Texas in 1972 and began my career as a professional advertising photographer and started my own studio in 1977. Ever since I built that first refractor I knew I would be 39 years old when Halley's Comet swung back through the Solar System and I knew I was going to photograph it. In 1986, my friendship with the stars got a boost when I traveled to New Zealand and did just that. Although the comet was dissapointing to many people, the view from down-under was worth the wait.
For years I had been captivated by the incredible images taken with Schmidt cameras; those rare, mythic, legendary instruments that produced tiny, pin-pointed star images of beautiful comets, nebula and starfields. I acquired a used 8 inch f1.5 Celestron Schmidt camera in 1996, just in time for Comet Hyakutake. This instrument introduced me to new definitions for the words frustration and patience, having to learn about curved film holders, unbelievable focus tolerances, nitrogen purging, film hypersensitization, custom film processing holders, etc. In the summer of 1996 I sent the instrument to Kevin Medlock of Epoch Instruments for his upgrade. This upgrade consisted of installing a custom cast spider which combats the focus shifts Schmidt cameras are known for. In addition, he added a new mirrior mount, tension limiting screws to the pressure plates of the film holders and collimated and focused the instrument.
Nowdays, during dark of the moon week , I can often be found at some dark site a few hundred miles from the glare of the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex with my Schmidt camera photographing hundreds of thousands of my friends.
Go to next page ---- Kent's amazing Schmidt camera images