Photographing Neil Armstrong’s Spacesuit

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

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.

Photographing Neil Armstrong's Helmet, Jim Preston, 2018, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum

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?

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.

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.

Credits: Story

by: Jim Preston, Supervising Photographer

Credits: All media
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