Weekly Top Pics Inspiration

Top Pic of the Week : Joe Matus

Congratulations to our Top Pic of the Week, Joe Matus . Read to learn more about the production of his photos.

As a NASA Engineer you take amazing photos of our solar system. Is astrophotography more of a hobby or are these photos used to fuel your career?

Thank you for the complement.  Photography is my hobby, and I have a passionate interest in astrophotography, in particular.  While one can generally see objects such as the sun, moon, and a few planets with the naked eye, and others with binoculars or telescopes, the eye cannot resolve the level of detail that can be captured photographically. There is a hidden universe that can only be coaxed out with the help of imaging and post processing.  Every time I capture an image I find details that amaze me.

The sun is my favorite object.  I purchased a specialty instrument, a solar telescope, that allows me to safely visualize the subtle surface and atmospheric details.  The scope, coupled with an astronomy camera and some moderate image processing using free software and Photoshop, allows me to capture those details and bring them to life.  I also have a small refracting telescope, as well as my camera lenses that I use with my DSLR to capture other objects, such as Jupiter, or the moon.

My hobby provided me with enough experience in photography to be hired by the NASA Space Shuttle Program to work imagery of the shuttle post Columbia return to flight. This also earned me a place on the NASA/MSFC team that went to Hopkinsville, KY for the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse.  I have been able to share my hobby with the general public, as well as have a number of images published by NASA.

Image of the Sun, taken from my back yard

This image was captured via a video (avi file) of 500 frames from a ZWO ASI 178MM cooled monochrome camera mounted on my Lunt 60THa solar telescope on my Orion Atlas EQ-AZ tracking mount. 

The final image is composed of the 50 best frames of the video, selected and stacked using Autostakkert software.  The image was sharpened in Registax software, and post-processed in Photoshop.  The original image is black and white, and false color was added via photoshop.

The surface shows a number of features.  The photosphere with its granules of plasma (fire of the surface) several filaments (sting-like features) including a very large one on the left, and a small sun spot at about the 10:00 position.

What gear do you currently use?

For general photography I use the full frame Nikon D4 DSLR and my old Nikon D200 crop sensor camera when I want to save weight and size.  I started out at the beginning of the digital camera era, back in the early 2000’s, and was interested in low-light photography.  Digital sensors were noisier than today and keeping the ISO as low as possible was important, so I concentrated on collecting large aperture Nikon professional lenses.

My most used are the 24-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200 f/2.8 VRII. I also have a 300mm f/2.8 AF-I, 85mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.4 AF, and several older manual focus lenses.  While I don’t use it as often as I could my 300mm f/2.8, bought from KEH.com, is my favorite because of the beautiful bokeh and its ability to isolate the subject from the background.

For astronomy use, I have a ZWO ASI 178MM, cooled, monochrome camera with a separate filter wheel (to add color).  I couple that with an Orion ED80, 600mm f/7.5 telescope for astronomy targets, and a Lunt 60THa Solar telescope for the sun.  I use the Orion Atlas EQ-AZ computerized mount to hold my astronomy gear and track my targets.

How  long have you been a taking photos? Are there other genres you enjoy shooting?

I am in my mid 50s now, but have been interested in photography since I can remember.  I became seriously interested in the hobby around 2002 when we bought our first digital camera, a Canon 1.3 megapixel digital point and shoot.  I soon moved up to the Nikon CoolPix 5700 bridge camera, and took off from there.

My wife and two daughters all ice skate, so I began shooting them.  Ice skating has really been my main-stay, and helped fund additional equipment purchases.  While that is technically sports photography, it is also low-light photography.  Rinks are very dim to the camera, and quite a challenge to shoot.  So, being mainly a low-light person, I eventually branched in to the ultimate low-light area of astrophotography.  I don’t limit myself to just low-light. I enjoy shooting, so any time I can record an image, I do so.

Robert Unger ISI Competition at the Ice Chalet, Knoxville, AL | Nikon D4 with 70-200mm f/2.8 VRII
ISO 2800, FL 116mm, f/2.8, 1/400

This is a photo of my daughter performing a jump during competition. The lighting was extremely poor and the action fast.

I try to get the image as close as possible, in camera, to minimize post-processing. I exposed at EV+1.3 due to the white ice, otherwise, the image would have been under exposed. The image was post-processed in Photoshop by performing an automatic levels adjustment and cropping a little.

How would you describe your photographic style?

I fancy my style as low-light, or low light action photography.  As I have said, I have mainly shot ice skating, which presents a number of challenges.

First, the environment is actually very dim to the camera, and good equipment and technique are extremely important if you want to get good images.  Second, there is live action you have only one chance to record. You need to become very familiar with the subject if a memorable image is to be captured.  Clients want to see the “Sports Illustrated” type image, with the full body, great action, and good facial expression.  In shooting this style of photography I have become a keen observer of detail and had to develop the reflexes to capture the action at just the right moment.  I realize my action photography style seems at odds with astrophotography, and it is from the standpoint that the subjects are essentially stationary. However, careful planning, observation, attention to detail, and sub-optimal lighting are common areas to each.  I love a challenge and this style fits the bill for me.

What advice  would you give other photographers regarding finding their style?

I did not get into this hobby with any style in mind, or any attempt to develop a particular style.  My style just evolved.  I took lots of images of any and everything that was of interest to me.

My biggest interest turned out to be capturing what the family was doing on the ice rink, and I took lots of photos of that.  Eventually I realized I am interested mainly in low light subjects, because they are so hard to capture well – and that is my style.  So for others searching for their style, I recommend shooting lots of photos of any and everything of interest.  Eventually, a style should make itself evident.

What gear are you hoping to add to your collection?

I just recently added a drone to my inventory, because I have always wanted to see the earth from above.  The aerial vantage point provides a unique perspective and opens a whole new world for potential subjects.  It is as close to flying as I can get without becoming a bird.

For general photography, I would like to reduce weight and bulk, so I hope to eventually add a mirrorless camera system, such as the Nikon Z6. This would get me up to date from a tech perspective. Overall, though, I am satisfied with my current gear and just want to capture memorable images to share.

Lunar Eclipse | This photo was taken from my backyard on January 20, ,2019.

I mounted my Nikon D4 to my Orion telescope using an adapter, called a T-adapter.  This basically adds a lens bayonet interface to the telescope so it can be used as a lens.  The scope was mounted to my Orion Atlas EQ-AZ tracking mount.  Since the moon moves slowly compared to the earth’s surface, the mount allowed me to move the camera at a slow rate to keep the moon centered on the imaging sensor.  The image is a 6 second exposure, captured in the native Nikon RAW format.  I processed it in Photoshop to sharpen and enhance the already awesome reddish color.

Bailey’s Beads | This is an image I captured from Hopkinsville, KY during the August 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.  NASA/MSFC published this, and several other of my images to social media.

The image is a single frame from my solar telescope, captured via my ZWO ASI 178MM cooled monochrome camera mounted on my Lunt 60THa solar telescope on my Orion Atlas EQ-AZ tracking mount. 

It was processed in Photoshop for sharpening and to add color.  The image shows the solar prominence (flames) dancing off the other edge of the sun at the instant the eclipse was starting.  At this point, the light of the sun was completely blocked by the disk of the moon.

The rough texture along the edge is called Bailey’s Beads and is the result of the jagged lunar mountain ranges letting bits of sunlight poke through their valleys.  While this may be a great image, nothing can compare with the emotion of being in the path of a total eclipse.  I thought I was prepared for the experience, but actually being there was beyond amazing and beyond anything I was prepared for. 

Thank you, Joe, for allowing us to share these photos! Check out more of his work on Instagram.