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Interview: Fire and Ice – Alan Friedman on Photographing the Sun

Interview Fire and Ice – Alan Friedman on Photographing the Sun photo-eye Gallery is thrilled to showcase recent work by renowned astrophotographer Alan Friedman, on view in the FIRE AND ICE exhibition installed at photo-eye Gallery through April 9th, 2016. Gallery Associate Lucas Shaffer recently spoke with Friedman again, detailing more about his artistic history as well as his personal practice.
2012 September 3 – Labor Day Sun,  © Alan Friedman, 2012

photo-eye Gallery is thrilled to showcase recent work by renowned astrophotographer Alan Friedman, on view in the FIRE AND ICE exhibition installed at photo-eye Gallery through April 9th, 2016.  FIRE AND ICE juxtaposes Friedman's incredible hi-resolution images of 'our neighborhood star' with Douglas Levere's detailed renderings of snowflakes. Friedman's colorful images have been selected for NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day, been the subject of a TEDx talk, and have appeared on NPR and NBC's Today Show.  Previously interviewed for the Photographer's Showcase, Gallery Associate Lucas Shaffer recently spoke with Friedman again, detailing more about his artistic history as well as his personal practice.

Lucas Shaffer:     You've mentioned your introduction to astronomy began in the '90s when viewing Saturn through a neighbor's telescope. Where did your interest in fine art begin? Did you study fine art in school?

Alan Friedman: That's a good question.  I went to Stuyvesant High School in New York, which is a math and science high school in New York City. I always was pretty good at math and science, but in that environment, there were a lot of kids who were going directly from Stuyvesant to the graduate fellows at Einstein University, and stuff like that. I quickly realized that this was not where I was going to excel. In my senior year in high school, I got more deeply involved in art.  I went to college, and I became an art major. I was a printmaker, did mostly intaglio printing, and I have a large etching press here in my office, which doesn't get used at all, but is a throwback to our interest when we were students, my wife and I together.

2013 July 14 – Calcium Sun, ©Alan Friedman, 2013

LS: I know that your process involves using a video camera to capture your images. Generally, how long are you recording? How long does it take to make an image, or does that change depending on what you're making an image of?

AF:      It does change, depending on what you're shooting. The capture length, there's an issue with the sun, and actually with a lot of astronomical subjects, that stuff changes over time, but I would say that generally I'm shooting about 2 minutes. There is a thing that may be more complicated to explain than it's worth, but the outside edge of the sun in my full disc images which show the prominences and the sky background, those are a separate exposure from the surface disc, because the surface is so much brighter. I've come up with a process where I shoot 2 different exposures and combine the data into one. That maybe extends it to 4 minutes to 5 minutes at the outside. The exposure for the disc of the sun is under 1 millisecond, it's usually about .8 milliseconds.

LS: Wow.

AF: They say it's under a thousandth of a second. The fascinating thing is, one of the challenges of making pictures of planets, which is what I used to do before I really started focusing on the sun, is that the light is so limited. If you don't have a really giant telescope, you're using a lot of gain on the sensor to get it sensitive enough to capture a bright enough image you can do something with it. It's quite noisy, so this whole stacking process becomes very important to reducing the signal noise. With the sun, I'm using absolutely zero gain. Each one of those frames is a good enough quality to be an image in itself.

LS: Just to be clear, 'stacking' refers to the combination of still frames from the video in photoshop, and the the reason that you're still stacking considering the brightness of the Sun that has to do with sharpness, correct?

AF: Yeah. It still increases the signal. It is a nice smooth image, but definitely if I stack 400 images together, the result is much smoother and then gives me head room in order to be able to increase the sharpness, where otherwise, increasing the sharpness, I would just be increasing the noise as well. I would be sharpening the noise, and basically putting features in the sun that aren't really there, edges that aren't really there.

2012 April 29 – Eruptive, © Alan Friedman, 2012
LS: When you say that you're putting 400 pictures together, how many on average are you usually using to stack  to create a full disc image?

AF:      I think 400 is a target that I hit usually if I shoot 1600 frames, which is about the length of my videos.  I have software that helps me with this, and it will go through my video capture and it will sort the frames based on what it perceives the quality to be. It would be great if that were perfect, but there is definitely a look through process for me to evaluate how the software did.  The full disc images take a lot of time to process, but in some ways, they're easier and it's a lot more computer time. The high resolution images are much more challenging to produce a pleasing result from that doesn't run out of head room for the detail that you've captured.

LS: When you say a high resolution, you're talking about the images of the partial disc, where you're seeing a close up of the sun?

AF: Right.

LS: Why are those more challenging than a full disc image?

AF: They're challenging from the standpoint of, the closer you get, the longer the focal length you use, and the more difficult it is to encounter conditions that let you do successful work. I would say that at least 3 out of the 4 days that I go out, the seeing is poor enough that the turbulence in the video will make it impossible to actually stack and combine images. If there's something really important happening on the sun, I'll always image it anyway. Sometimes I'll just use a single frame.

Friedman, under the silver cloth, imaging at home

LS: What is it like making the images?

AF: It's a lot of watching. The actual captures are very short, but I might be out for an hour and a half waiting for those couple of 2 minute moments to record good raw material. The beauty is that I don't need a half hour of great seeing. I only need micro moments in a swatch of 2 minutes, so I basically am hanging out underneath the cloth in my backyard, watching the sun, waiting for things to settle and then hitting capture, and hoping that I'd hit a good spot where I'll have enough good frames in that 2 minute capture that I can make a good image.

LS:      I'm going to back up for just a second. You'd said, if something important is happening on the sun, you would image it anyway. What is an important event? Can you describe one?

2015 September 16 – Solarsaurus, © Alan Friedman, 2015
AF: Yeah, unfortunately these pieces are not in the photo-eye exhibit, I kept them back, but there was a sun spot in October of 2014, which was arguably the largest sun spot since the 1940s, so it was a really beautiful, big, dramatic spot that we watched travel across the sun. I was out there. It took about a week, actually 9 days I think for it to go from one side of the sun to the other. It just stayed big and massive. Things like that. The other thing is a very exciting, big prominence. That image that's in the photo-eye show and is called Solarsaurus. The length of it is all the way from the earth to the moon and then halfway back. That's how long that thing is. It's one of these things you can't take a bad picture of because it's so big.

LS: I think that's one of the impressive parts of the work to me, is just trying to get a handle on the sheer scale of what we're looking at, which is impossible. It's sublime in that way.

AF: A little trick that I play with all the time just for doing that kind of scaling is, it takes 109 Earths to fit across the sun. If you made them like paper dolls running across the diameter of the sun, you'd fit 109 in there. If you sliced the sun open and treated it like it was a hollow ball, you could fit a million Earths inside of it. That's the size of the sun.

Alan Friedman with his telescope
'Little Big Man' in Buffalo, NY
image © Douglas Levere
LS: Yes. That's an incredible scale. You live in Buffalo, NY and started photographing the sun partially because of where your home is located and the light pollution at night, but also perhaps due to the time of day and out of convenience a well. Is there anything else that really drew you to making images of the sun, and started you off with an interest that's lasted for a number of years now?

AF: Yeah, quite a few years. The fact that [the sun] is different all the time.  I don't really get too involved in the scientific hosting of these images, because there's a whole world that does that as well and tries to keep the world up to date with the science of it, and also the professional astronomers who've got waiting lists for the Hubble Space Telescope that's 5 years long. We don't need to do that with the sun. The pressure's off. We got spaceships up there that are taking pictures of the sun 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. I can sit back and try and tell the story of the sun from a different perspective, from a creative perspective, try and make a compelling story without having to be a slave to the laws and rules of scientific recording.

LS: I really like the phrase, the 'story of the sun'. Can you tell me more about that, and what you see as the story of the sun?

AF: Again, the fact that the sun is different every day, even if it's just from its rotation, it's always presenting us with a different face. Lot of people don't even know that the sun rotates, but it rotates in, I believe, 25 days. I always have to check some of the science facts. Every day its features are changing, and of course they're developing as well. You've got this thing that is so incredibly balanced that it has basically been doing what it does for 4 billion years, and it's going to continue to do what it does, almost without change for another 4 billion years. This crazy nuclear fusion furnace that is perfectly balanced. We look at it, and it looks exactly the same every day, except we can't really look at it. It's this thing that's so much a part of our existence, and yet we can't look at it. I love the idea that I'm able to look at it and show people what the sun really looks like, what structures it has. I think that's what I see as a compelling story.

2013 August 23 – Pastoral Sun,  © Alan Friedman, 2013

LS:     Speaking of the creative side, You've been very forthcoming about coloring your images. When you're toning the photographs, what's process like and how are you making those decisions? I know that it's often more than just the color, but sometimes a complete inversion of values, right?

AF:  I had been photographing the sun for a couple of years, and was getting restless with where it was going. It was just one of these moments, and I don't even know if I should say this because it makes it sound so simple, but I was playing with Photoshop and I was just looking through the menus, and I hit the invert filter. It took the image, which was a traditional full disc image of the sun, where the sun was yellow and it inverted it. Not only did the tonality become inverted, but the colors were inverted too. This yellow sun became blue. It was just such a startling thing when I saw it. It turned it into something completely different.  I started to play with the colors like a palette of emotion, trying not to do weird stuff for its own purpose where it's all about the color, but trying to use the color to compliment what was going on in the sun that day. I have some very pastoral suns which I colored with a reddish hue, which is the color that I'm shooting in when I'm shooting in hydrogen alpha.  Hubble's cameras are monochrome too, but they got a whole team to colorize those images to tell different perspectives on the universe.

LS:     I think you're right. Color is emotional. Color can be musical. I really like the idea that your coloring the sun is somewhat based on the story that it's telling you that day. It's almost a personal expression, that's the document that you've made is the color that you've added to it.

AF:      I think that's very true.

LS:      What are you most excited for in the upcoming FIRE AND ICE exhibition?

AF:   I'm very excited about this show because I've finally been doing this long enough, I think, to have accumulated enough images that I really love to make an exhibition about how it is when you put together your work and give it a hard look. Usually you kind of are really tired of about half of it.  Being able to work with Douglas is this other thrill. Now, I have somebody else's work that I've been able to get excited about, which kind of works geometrically. It's not one plus one, it's sort of one times one, it's the same thing, but you know, two times two. It's very exciting to have a colleague and feed off the excitement of his work as well.

FIRE AND ICE installed at photo-eye Gallery

View the Online FIRE portfolio

Read photo-eye's 2012 Interview with Friedman

FIRE AND ICE will be on view through April 9th, 2016 at photo-eye Gallery. 


For additional information, and to purchase prints, please contact:
 Gallery Director Anne Kelly 
 505-988-5152 x 121 or