Photographing Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit

Posted on Fri, October 19, 2018
  • by: Jim Preston, Supervising Photographer

The National Air and Space Museum collection is full of objects that tell the history of air and space exploration. Supervising photographer Jim Preston reflects on one of his favorite objects to photograph—Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit.

If being hired as the new senior photographer at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum wasn’t exciting enough, here I am a few months into the job and I got the opportunity to photograph something incredible--the spacesuit that Neil Armstrong actually wore nearly 50 years ago when he took his  first step on the Moon.  Pardon the pun, but a little out of this world, no?

So here I was, standing next to history. I took a few minutes to take in this special “wow” moment.  Then it was time to get to work.

It was also a very rare opportunity to shoot it with the helmet attached, as it was recently taken out of a secured environmentally controlled storage area at our Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center and assembled in the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory for several media photo sessions.

It has been some time since it was last photographed for the Air and Space archives by photographer Mark Avino. Those images were taken without the helmet, so this was a special opportunity to get new high-resolution images of this historic artifact as we begin a year of celebrating the Apollo program.

So here I was, standing next to history. I took a few minutes to take in this special “wow” moment.  Then it was time to get to work.

The suit was positioned vertically, using a newly designed internal mannequin, in the conservation lab. With the assistance of conservation staff, the first objective was to put up a black paper backdrop behind and under the feet of the suit. You can see this in the first photo showing the placement of the backdrop in the lab. Next, we placed the lights strategically, knowing that the highly reflective face shield would be the biggest challenge of the shoot.

Tight shot of the lunar spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 mission showing the reflection in the face shield, taken by photographer Jim Preston. Credit: National Air and Space Museum

I chose to light the suit to overpower, rather than balance the daylight strobes with the existing mixture of daylight and overhead lighting in the room.  I also wanted a large depth of field to be sure the entire suit would be in focus.  To achieve this, the strobe lights and cameras were set up for an f/stop of 22 and a shutter speed of 200th of a second. 

The camera equipment for this shoot was a Hasselblad X1D on a tripod and a Nikon D850 with the ASA setting of 200. Both cameras were set up with medium focal length lenses to prevent any distortion that I would get from a wide-angle lens and to keep the black background behind the subject.

For the lighting, I used three Elinchrom portable units with Ranger S heads. Two of the heads were fitted with soft boxes, one a large rectangle soft box and the other a tall strip box. In order to deal with major reflections in the curved face shield, I placed these two heads on the sides of the subject and slightly in front.  I later changed out the soft boxes with two medium white umbrellas set up with the lights shooting through, rather than bouncing off, the surface. This setup made for slightly smaller reflections in the face shield.

It still gives me goosebumps when I look at the print I have posted in my office.

To create a highlight on the top of the helmet and shoulders, I placed a third light on a boom over the background directly over the subject. This light was fitted with very a wide reflector, sending out direct light with the power setting about a stop and a half brighter than the other two lights.

I made several test exposures, slightly adjusting the power settings and light positions, until I got the desired effect. I first shot a full head-to-toe view, then moved in for some close-ups.  As you can see in the tighter view of the helmet, my reflection and much of the room was reflected in the face shield.  For the final images, I used Adobe Photoshop to process and tone the images, darkening the center of the face shield to tone down the reflections. 

My favorite photo out of the shoot was a detail shot I made of the shoulder flag. It still gives me goosebumps when I look at the print I have posted in my office.

Houston, we have lift off.

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