“Holy cow, you took THAT picture from your backyard!” is the typical response when someone
views one of Dr. Steve Mazlin’s astrophotographs. “And I did it while sleeping” is often Dr. Mazlin’s
reply. Dr. Mazlin, a neurologist by day, enters the world of 21st century amateur astrophotography by
night. Gone are the days when amateurs, exposing themselves to winter frostbite or summer
mosquito attacks, used clunky old telescopes and film cameras, and produced inferior images that
were usually grainy, blurry, and poorly exposed.
Today’s amateur, Dr. Mazlin explains, can take advantage of amazing equipment and techniques that
have evolved over the past 10-15 years. The hobby gives the ultimate “high” for those wanting to
combine their interests in astronomy, photography, and computing. The telescopes sit on top of
computerized “go-to” mounts, which instantly and accurately slew to any of thousands of objects in
their databases. The cameras are digital, and often manufactured solely for astroimaging, though
many amateurs also use digital SLR’s – the same ones that you can purchase at your local Walmart.
Dr. Mazlin adds a few other bells & whistles, including a rotating dome observatory that houses
everything all year round, and hardware/software that allows him to control everything by remote
from his in-house computer – if everything goes according to plan, he can usually sleep while much
of the data is collected.
Data collection itself involves taking multiple exposures of given object – say 30 – with each
exposure being 5-15 minutes in duration. A very accurate clock drive in the telescope mount turns to
compensate for the earth’s rotation, so the object stays precisely centered on the imaging chip.
However, be forewarned, the hours of data collected for a single image, often over several nights, is
the easy part of this hobby. Next comes the arduous task of image processing, during which time the
raw data is “reduced” to remove the effects of thermally generated noise, vignetting in the light path,
dust near the imaging chip, and other problems. Then the component exposures are digitally
superimposed, hereby greatly improving the signal-to-noise ratio, and allowing for very faint objects
to be imaged with a wealth of detail. We are not done yet – the resultant image is further processed
to adjust the color balance, sharpen and/or blur selected areas, and remove light pollution effects.
Good image processing requires intimate knowledge of complicated software, including Adobe
Photoshop, and Dr. Mazlin can spend weeks tweaking a single image until he is satisfied. Sometimes
a large object is imaged in pieces which are then digitally and seamlessly blended into a mosaic, “a
tedious task requiring a good helping of OCD traits”, jokes Dr. Mazlin.
The final product, taken from a backyard observatory in light polluted Bucks County, often produces
more “wows and gee-whizzes” than a Hubble image, simply because you expect the Hubble to
perform beautifully, but you don’t necessarily expect an amateur to produce work of this caliber.
In an effort to further improve the quality of his images, Dr. Mazlin recently became a partner in Star
Shadows Remote Observatory, which operates out of New Mexico, and through an arrangement
with UNC Chapel Hill, also operates out of a professional installation in Chile (CTIO). Imaging over
the internet is often quite challenging -- it's hard enough to troubleshoot problems in your own
backyard, let alone thousands of miles away!...but the rewards are great when imaging from these
areas devoid of light pollution. Some pictures of the SSRO team's visit to Chile in 2008 can be found
Dr. Mazlin’s images have appeared in multiple magazines, including Sky & Telescope, Sky Watch,
Beautiful Universe, GEO International, as well as on-line on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day
website. His images have won several awards, but he is most proud that the "Witch Head Nebula"
was chosen by UNESCO for its World Science Day poster in 2009.
In 2006, Dr. Mazlin, along with fellow amateurs Jim Misti and Bob Benamati, hosted the East Coast
Conference on Astronomical Imaging (ECCAI) in Philadelphia. A write-up of the conference by Sean
Walker from Sky&Telescope can be found here.
Dr. Mazlin was featured on the cover of the Sunday "Life" section of the Bucks County Courier
Times on September 14, 2008, and on the cover of the "Health and Science" section of the
Philadelphia Inquirer on October 13, 2008. In a somewhat radical departure from its usual subject
matter, "Bucks County Town and Country Living" magazine also chose Dr. Mazlin for its cover story
in the summer 2009 edition.
From November 2009 thru February 2010, Dr. Mazlin had a one man show at the Monmouth
Museum in Monmouth, NJ. He has lectured at multiple venues, including local astronomy clubs, the
Franklin Institute, the 2009 Northeast Astroimaging Conference, and most recently (March 2010)
was invited to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine to give a lecture on astrophotography, in
preparation for the exhibition planned there in 2011. In advance of this event, the "Lewiston Sun
Journal" featured Dr. Mazlin in its February 28th, 2010 edition. Dr. Mazlin is a visiting scholar in the
department of physics at UNC Chapel Hill.
Dr. Mazlin's alter ego, The Great Mazlini, can be found on youtube HERE.