Seeing into space: Cosmic Microscapes with photographer Neil Buckland
|A slice of meteorite, sandwiched between two linear polarizers.|
Neil Buckland is obsessed with detail. For more than fifteen years, the Seattle-based photographer has been doing stitched landscape photography composed of dozens of images, captured on everything from Micro Four Thirds cameras all the way up to medium format. These days, he's become enamored with a new type of landscape - one that is very, very small. It also happens to come from space.
"I've always been fascinated with abstract photography of ordinary things," Buckland says. "There's beauty everywhere, and I especially love using macro lenses to reveal more detail than I can see with my eyes - an extension of seeing more detail is capturing more resolution, more clarity, more information."
When it comes to his newest work, which he's titled Cosmic Microscapes, the objects of Buckland's abstract photography are anything but ordinary. They're impossibly thin slices (i.e. 30 microns 'thick' - human hair averages 90 microns) of formerly space-faring objects that have crashed into Earth over the millennia. And though most of these slides are around 0.75"x1.5" in size, Buckland is making prints from them that are around 12 feet wide and even larger.
|By rotating the polarizers, Buckland can alter the visible colors seen through the sample.|
I had a chance to sit down with Buckland in his studio in south Seattle to discuss not only how this project came to be, but also how he manages to produce these images – and this insane amount of detail – on a fully custom-built rig.
'The depth-of-field is 3.5 microns thick'
It all started when Dr. Tony Irving of the University of Washington first came to Buckland's studio three years ago to have meteorite slices photographed for a scientific presentation. At that time, Buckland didn't know what this project would grow into.
|Buckland's rig is almost entirely custom-made for this specific purpose.|
"The first time I looked at [the slide], I thought, 'okay, nothing special,'" Buckland said. Then, Dr. Irving used two linear polarizing filters to pass cross-polarized light through it. "What is this magic? With the cross-polarized light, you get these crazy colors you never knew existed," Buckland said. The colors tell scientists a lot about the chemical composition of what they're looking at – but they also happen to be stunningly beautiful.
Buckland started out using a standard macro lens on a Pentax K-1 DSLR, and while this served him well enough for Dr. Irving's scientific presentations, one thing led to another – and another. He soon bought a Venus Optics 2.5x-5x macro lens, but that also wasn't enough.
|Buckland must make incredibly fine adjustments to ensure precise focus across a 1.5" specimen.|
After months of tinkering, Buckland found what he was really after: a 10x microscope objective, mounted to his camera via a custom-made adapter, with the camera on a custom-made reinforced metal mounting base that weighs in at around 50 lbs. Despite the concrete construction of his studio building, Buckland couldn't work with a lighter stand. "My biggest, heaviest tripod was useless," Buckland said. "A UPS truck would pass by and I'd see the camera live view shake like crazy." And when you're using Pentax's Pixel Shift technology at this level of magnification, you need absolute and complete stability.
This is because a 10x microscope objective is more magnified than you might think. "I'm only seeing 2 millimeters square of the slide," Buckland said, which is about what you'd see looking through the microscope with your own eye. "But I want to see the whole thing," Buckland said, and so he captures 300 to 400 2x2mm tiles and stitches them together. The capturing process can take up to 4 hours per slide, and focusing alone can take an hour or so. The depth-of-field is only around 3.5 microns(!), so precise calibration is necessary to ensure the whole slide stays in focus throughout the capture process.
|Buckland takes a break from lining up his camera to pose for a portrait.|
"I've looked at these slices my entire career, and no one has ever really been able to see more than one or two millimeters of the thing at a time [with this detail]," said Dr. Irving. "When you take a slide and you look at it as a geologist, you move it around. But when you move, you lose the context. So there is a practical aspect that these images make for an enhancement of scientific study."
The images already look amazing on a 65" OLED monitor in Buckland's studio, but of course, on the digital display you can still zoom in to see greater detail – and just keep zooming. But then you're moving around again, and losing context. So how do you avoid that? You make prints. Really, really big prints.
Seeing the whole picture
|Neil and his pup, Brian, next to a print in his studio.|
As referenced earlier, one of Buckland's specialties is stitched panoramic images of vast natural landscapes. The creation of these images was largely inspired by Thomas Hill's early paintings of what would become some of the United States' most treasured national parks.
"I'm obsessed with detail. When I make these giant landscape prints, I want you to stand in front of them and feel like you're there," Buckland said. "With this custom rig, I can do that with a micro subject – not just giant landscapes." Thus, the name 'microscape' was born.
Here's a sampling of some low-res images of Buckland's meteorite work (and you can see far more here).
After spending anywhere from 6 to 10 hours capturing, stitching and cleaning up a meteorite image, Buckland selects a relatively small crop for a final print. His Canon wide-format printer is limited to prints 44 inches wide, so for a 12-foot-wide print, he has to divide the image into strips. These are then painstakingly cut and mounted together, with careful attention paid to a lack of visible seams between the strips. And even though they're enormous, the detail isn't exactly lacking.
After all, prints that large can often fall apart when you're too close - they're meant to be viewed at a distance. "That doesn't work for me," Buckland said. "I want you to get really, really close to my prints – you can't get too close, because your eyes won't be able to focus at that point." Dr. Irving said that, aside from the educational advantages, "if you have the time to stand in front of it, you can really appreciate it – like all art."
|A gallery visitor lingers in front of Buckland's more modest-sized 30 x 40" prints.
Photo by Nate Gowdy | Courtesy Neil Buckland
Dr. Irving continues to bring more samples to Buckland, who continues to photograph them in staggering detail. But Buckland isn't satisfied yet. In addition to a newly opened gallery showing in Seattle, Buckland aims to produce a traveling exhibition of mammoth prints to be shown at natural history museums and continues to tinker with his photography setup for even better results - including considering Panasonic's Lumix S1R and its 187MP high-res mode. But in the meantime?
"I just ordered a 20x microscope objective, which would probably quadruple the number of tiles - which is totally insane." Buckland said. "There's just no logical reason to capture that much detail!" he laughs.
So I ask, why do it then? He points to an enormous, stitched image of El Capitan at sunrise in Yosemite national park hanging prominently in his studio. "Why would you climb such a thing? Because it's there."
Neil Buckland is a photographer based in Seattle who specializes in nature, portrait and product photography. He also runs educational workshops, both at his REDred Photo studio and on location around the world.
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