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News & Insight

See Into Distant Galaxies With $100k Worth Of Canon L Lenses

By Kishore Sawh on May 27th 2015


Do you have a Canon 400mm 2.8L? What would happen if you put ten of them together, other than remortgaging your house?

The reason I first wanted a Hassleblad was because I knew that’s what NASA had deemed to be the cameras they were sending with their best and brightest into space. The reason I wanted to be American was first and foremost to be able to fly pointy-nosed tactical fighters and land them on a boat with the US Navy, and maybe have a shot of going to space. Part of the reason I still shoot Nikon is because the ISS is littered not with grey L lenses, but black Nikkor ones. But some of those grey L lenses are being put to use to search parts of the solar system and universe that are literally light years further from where the ISS sits and sees, and it’s making me want one…or ten.


It’s called the Dragonfly Telephoto Array and it’s a robotic imaging system at the University Of Toronto that’s meant and optimized to detect extended ultra-low surface brightness structures. Basically, it’s among the smallest professional astronomical telescopes in existence and it’s used to detect distant galaxies. It looks to the outer edges of the universe to find galaxies that may not even exist anymore – so it’s looking to the future to discover the past.

When you hear about something like this, you may imagine something from the Starship Enterprise, but, in fact, it’s more like something you’d see in a display case at B&H. Currently, the Dragonfly is made up of 10, commercially available Canon 400mm F/2.8L IS IIs.


Each one of those lenses will crater your bank account to the tune of $10k, so this set up is $100,000 worth in Canon L lenses.

However, it only began with 3 in 2013, and has steadily grown since then, likely due to its success, and even at 100k, that’s relatively inexpensive. In addition, it’s claimed that this multi-lens array does things much larger, much more expensive scopes can’t, largely due to the lens coatings,

Dragonfly is designed to reveal the faint structure by greatly reducing scattered light and internal reflections within its optics. It achieves this using ten, commercially available Canon 400mm lenses with unprecedented nano-fabricated coatings with sub-wavelength structure on optical glasses.Also, Dragonfly images a galaxy through multiple lenses simultaneously—akin to a dragonfly’s compound eye—enabling further removal of unwanted light. The result is an image in which extremely faint galaxy structure is visible.


[REWIND: Challenges & Rewards of Astronaut Photography With Don Pettit & NASA]

All this together makes Dragonfly at least 10x as efficient than its closest rival. Well done, Canon. Well done.

Sources: University Of Toronto, Images courtesy of U of T and Yale Universtiy, DIY Photography

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    I wonder how the image from the lenses is captured!

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  2. J. Dennis Thomas

    “Part of the reason I still shoot Nikon is because the ISS is littered not with grey L lenses, but black Nikkor ones.”

    Little known fact. Nikon was the first to produce light grey lenses. The first AF-D lenses with Silent Wave motors, the 28-70 f/2.8D, the 80-200 f/2.8D, and the 300mm f/2.8D. The 1st version of the 70-200mm f/2.8G VR was also available in white for awhile.

    I had the 28-70mm f/2.8D in white, but someone offered me twice the money a black one would sell for so I sold it and bought a black one and pocketed the change. :)

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  3. Fred Hogaboom

    An image taken with this setup would be nice.

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  4. Matthew Saville

    I wonder if Sigma has such optical coatings in store for their 200-500mm f/2.8… :-D :-D :-D

    I think we need a meme of that dude with biceps holding up 10X of the “Sigzilla”

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  5. Dave Haynie

    Hmmm… I just agreed to sell my house a few hours ago…. but I think the wife is going to want a new house at some point.

    Astrophotography uses camera sensors in novel ways, and was one of the first places where they did both digital and meat-space tricks to improve imaging: cooling sensors for lower noise on long exposures, averaging multiple photos to also reduce noise, etc. Pretty interesting stuff to read about even if you’re not currently doing this stuff… as a kid, I was shooting through a 4.5″ Newtonian reflector telescope using Dad’s Konica SLRs, and for awhile with the larger telescope owned by the Astromony Club of Bell Labs, Holmdel, NJ…. once we figured out that it had been neglected and got books — at Edmund Scientific down in Barrington NJ — on how to align a Newtonian telescope. Fun times!

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Haha. Nice story Dave. Making me want to look for some neglected scopes

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    • Dave Haynie

      I kept the ‘scope around when my kids were little, but neither showed much interest in looking at Jupiter or Saturn or Moon close-ups. I eventually sold it as a yard sale…. so some other kid who was interested got the chance. As I recall, when used directly with a camera (versus eyepiece projection, another method), it was the equivalent of a 1200mm f/8 or so lens.

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  6. robert garfinkle

    I would call this array “Eye Sea!!”

    Observation (no pun intended) – it’s interesting to see the advancement of earth-based photography with respect to astronomy over the last few years improve exponentially – as even quite a few years ago, with such large scopes and a CCD behind it, creating just so, so imagery. Yet now, even without a scope, just a camera and wide-angle lens the performance you get – amazing, better than some scopes – IMO.

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  7. Ben Perrin

    I knew I shouldn’t have put that deposit on a new house…

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  8. Graham Curran

    I do astrophotography and use my 60D on a f/4 12 inch Newtonian telescope, I find that a lot more affordable but then I’m not discovering new galaxies.

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  9. Rafael Steffen

    Amazing project. I would love to see the samples, but I am sure that the Nikon D810a is just the right tool combined with the right telescope.

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  10. Peter Nord

    I tell my photography students that someone will make a cell phone camera with multiple lenses, like an insect eye. The computer power is already built in. This is a very cool, but rather larger example. More a sensor than a photo making device. Check out:
    Sing the glory of imagination!

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  11. Nate Castner

    I wish there were some example images in this post…

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