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The Universe Is Not Black & White

The Universe Is Not Black & White
When and why did you started shooting?

I owned a consulting business in Washington, DC for 30 years. I sold it a few years ago and have since retired. I love to fish and I moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida 9 years ago.

My first hurricane is what got me interested in guns.

At one point, we had no power for several days. There were no services at all, no gas, no police support, stores were closed and I became concerned that if there were riots and looting, I would have no way to protect myself and my wife. So I bought a 12 gauge shot gun to keep in the house. Then I did a little research and found the South Florida Pistol Club. I went out there three or four times to watch and decided that this would not only be a lot of fun, but it would help train me in firearms proficiency and safety.

I realized this sport takes a lot of practice and training. I took some lessons with Manny Bragg in Frostproof and it helped a lot. I got an STI Edge and shot Limited for a while, but soon learned my eyes weren’t as good as they used to be so I bought an open gun from Errol Lawson, who was one of the best gun builders in Florida. I’ve been shooting open pretty much ever since. I am now shooting an open gun built in Arizona by Eddie Garcia, who is one of the nicest people and best shooters in the business. We moved to Arizona four years ago and if you like to shoot, this is the place to be.

"... There were no services at all, no gas, no police support, stores were closed and I became concerned that if there were riots and looting, I would have no way to protect myself and my wife.."

Al Barr


I’ve always been interested in astronomy. While I was in Florida, I was curious to see what the South Florida Amateur Astronomers Association was about. So I went to one of their public meetings near Fort Lauderdale. I was watching a guy imaging a deep space object and we became good friends. He mentored me for a year and after buying a lot of equipment (telescope, computerized mount, cameras, etc.) I started joining these people to imaging treks, mostly in the Everglades where it is very dark. Much like USPSA, these people went out of their way to help me learn more and imaging deep space objects is very, very complicated. It really takes years to learn.

How difficult is it to obtain the final image? How do you do it?

Coming up with a technically good image is a very time consuming and complicated process. You need two cameras. One to obtain data on the target image. The other camera just takes continuous pictures of a single star. That “guide star” actually controls the movement of the mount with the telescope. This is how you can take very long exposures and still get perfectly round stars without trails.

Based on the target, whether it’s dim or bright, I have taken hours of exposures ranging from 5 minutes up to 30 minutes. The trick is to keep doing this over and over until you have enough exposures to produce a good image. When you are done, you stack all these images like a sandwich and create one final. The more images you get the more detail you get. I have done some images where I have actually taken 24 hours of images over several days or even weeks. Then after you capture the data you need, you have to process it so it looks really good. That requires special software and really good processing skills. The learning curve is very difficult but I can say that once you get the data from the telescope and camera, you can spend days or even weeks just processing it into the final product.

What does fascinates you about astrophotography?

What’s always amazed me about this is the concept of time. I am actually getting photos of incredibly beautiful objects in deep space that possibly no longer exist but the light from their image is still traveling through time. Light travels an 670 million miles per hour. So if you are imaging an object that is 5000 light years from Earth, it is highly possible that object no longer exists in space. Pretty amazing.

I’ve included two photos I particularly like.One is the Andromeda Galaxy which is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way. The other is a nebula (mostly hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur) dust particles in space that sometimes are the shape of things we are familiar with. for example, there is a North American Nebula, a Pelican Nebula. I’ve included here a 24 hour shot I did of The Horsehead and Flame. Looking at it is easy to see how it got its name.

Which gun and camera would you recommend?

I really can’t recommend anything specific in terms of guns and astronomy equipment. Obviously a lot of it is determined by your budget. Without a doubt, the biggest reason I shoot open has to do with my eyesight. I’ve spent silly amounts of money on special glasses, contact lenses, etc. so I can shoot iron sights competitively but at the end of the day, I can see the red dot with my street glasses and although open guns are pretty pricey these days it makes all the difference in the world to me.

Same goes for camera, though the big advantage there is you can buy a large range of lens for different applications, like wide field or close up photography. Once again, budget is a big factor.

When I graduated school, my first job was a journalist working for a small newspaper in Virginia. I loved photography, and really got into then. There were no digital cameras in those days so I learned how to develop and print my own film. Today, the software you can use with digital photos is absolutely astounding. And what’s nice about that is the software can be used for photos with a regular camera or with an astro camera as well.

I’ve used Canon, Nikon, Leica and most recently Sony. Of all the equipment I have, I actually think I like the Sony A 6300 mirrorless camera the best. It’s small, light and very easy to travel with. It’s not that expensive, you can get the camera and a small zoom lens for about $1,000. If you’re not into the technical end of this, you can just put it in auto mode and still get great photos.

Category: Life Beyond The Gun