This is Your Art

The other hobby I have a borderline unhealthy obsession with is cycling. Its freeing, as challenging or easy as you want it to be, therapeutic, and just plain damn fun. I’ve cycled tens of thousands of miles over the years, and commuted over ten miles each way to work in 100 degree heat, and 10 degree chill for ten years. All I did was get on and pedal. Unfortunately, to this day, I have magazines, and blogs, and people who have less than 1000 miles on their legs tell me everything I’m doing is “wrong”. I have the wrong tires, my cadence is off, I can’t seriously be cycling without Lycra and cycling specific socks, can I? Yes, socks are actually a debate in cycling. Throughout the years of cycling, my constant message has been this – get on and pedal. It’s that simple. I’ve been cycling seriously for a couple decades. I follow the laws. I know what is safe might not always be considered “right”, but I know I’m safe. I’m sitting on the seat, moving my feet and the bike is moving. That’s it. That’s cycling. I’m not doing it wrong.

I’m also not taking pictures wrong, either are you.

I see a lot of this same superiority complex in Astrophotography. “You need this” – “you can’t image with that” – “do it this way” are not just suggestions from fellow imagers, but rather demands and seeds of doubt. Astrophotographers are a small group, and those who really want to hone their craft are an even smaller section of that group. Let’s face it, we’re generally nerds, and the smaller section of the group is even nerdier. Sometimes us nerds lack the interpersonal skills to make suggestions rather than declare an opinion as a fact. And sometimes us nerds just can’t handle something not being black and white or right and wrong. But we have public star parties and teach people about the sky, you say! We all know we’re there to show off our gear and and not really educate. It’s a nerd car show, and I don’t mean car show. Us nerds need to be “right” and know everything, especially more than the next guy! We’re friendly and in awe of other people’s work, but there is a spark of jealousy always mixed in. Unfortunately, so many of us nerds don’t get what this hobby really is…

Pictures of the Sky are Art! 


I love the image above, but some will consider it astronomical blasphemy because I removed the stars. We need to take a step back and realize this hobby for what it is. It is 100% subjective. I’ll say that again. Astrophotography is 100% subjective. One more time, a different way. Opinions of art aren’t facts!  Just like someone getting on the seat and pedaling is doing cycling “right”; someone pointing a camera at the sky and taking a picture is doing astrophotography “right”. There are certainly ways to improve and hone your skills on the methods you choose and the outcome you desire. But your goals are your own, and it’s nobody else’s job to tell you the direction you should go or how to get there. We are nerds venturing into artistic expression. Art is something that can’t be clearly defined and put in a box, and it kills our analytical minds.

There is one resource on the Internet who I won’t name, that has pages and pages and pages dedicated to how everyone in Astrophotography is doing everything wrong because they aren’t shooting in “natural” color, or their processing methods are wrong, or whatever the topic of the day might be. I actually happen to like some of the methods discussed on the pages, but I strongly disagree with the tone and purpose of the communication. Yes, we can estimate amounts of gas and their intensities, but their colors change based on exposure length and intensity. So what is “correct” color? A 1/30 second exposure to match what our brains process? What ISO? The point is that ANY color pulled out of a dim deep space object is subjective, because it is beyond what our eyes can see. This source has dedicated hours and days and weeks to writing technical articles on everyone being wrong, but they’re not wrong, and frankly, this author’s methods aren’t wrong either. That’s what’s great about art. We’re all right, and any critiques are only opinions, and opinions are like assho…

By the way, I tried some of the “concrete” methodologies from the aforementioned source and they failed miserably for me. I’m not at a location that can even pretend to be a dark site. When someone says they have light pollution I would ask them to come read a book unaided in my backyard at 2AM on a moonless night to see what severe light pollution is. I say that to emphasize how different each individual person’s conditions are, but we try to categorize them into a scale of nine sections. The author has probably never tried to image anywhere close to what I have to get through. Several times the answer I’ve gotten about imaging from my location is “don’t”. I don’t accept that. The technology is too far advanced to say no. There a million different solutions to a million different problems and the only person that can figure them out is the one in your exact situation. The only person who can give you specific instructions on imaging at your exact site is the one standing there taking pictures.

The message boards aren’t all that different. There are plenty of chest-pounding heated “discussions” about who can out-nerd who.  I have no doubt plenty of people want to help, and I’m not saying that good help is impossible to find. I am saying that I’ve found it easier at times just to figure things out for myself rather than go asking questions. That’s disappointing, but that’s also the age of the Internet. To often, whoever is loudest wins, and the people with constructive information and actual communication skills would just rather not get involved.

People have a lot of problems in this hobby that they want to solve. All too often they are told what they are doing is “wrong” and what they “need” to do instead of being suggested things to try that might help. In my case I’ve been told “why bother?” and “you’re wasting your time”. Yes, obtaining an image is a more cumbersome and complicated for me at my location, but I can do it, and other’s can too. I don’t even have all the answers for my back yard, and anybody who thinks they have all the answers for you is fooling themselves and not understanding what this hobby is all about.

My advice for new imagers:

If someone is telling you what the composition of your image needs to look like, go somewhere else. Good advice is “try this method”, or “this method might give you this result”.  Anyone telling you what method will absolutely work for your situation is not on the right plane. Don’t get discouraged or angry when us nerds need to be right or somehow feel superior. Just move on. Sometimes you will just have piece together information and figure things out yourself. One hundred people could paint the same tree and none of the paintings would be identical. Make an image your own, or else it’s just a copy of everything else. Maybe it’s an angle, an alignment, a choice of color you want to pull out. Whatever it is, this is your canvas, and who gives a crap what someone else thinks about your canvas.

My advice for the experienced imagers:

Think in “if/then” terms. We all know that, right?  IF someone asks a question about how to reach a certain result, THEN give a suggestion about how they might reach that result. Accept that this is art. Pay attention to what is being asked. IF you don’t have an answer that fits what is being asked, THEN shut up and go to the next post. Don’t try to shoehorn an answer in that doesn’t really fit. IF you feel the need to reply to a comment on a message board that takes away from the original poster’s question, THEN don’t do it.

I do feel that some full disclosure is in order. I came from an art background almost 30 years ago with aspirations of being an art teacher. When I got my first computer in 1993, a switch was flipped and I’ve been working in IT pretty much ever since. I like to think I have a bit of a unique perspective on this having been involved heavily in both art and technology in my past, but I probably don’t. I do know that a couple folks who have come at this from the artistic side of things make some beautiful images without over-complicating things. At the same time, some of the images turned out by folks obsessing over every unnecessary detail are amazing in their own right. And of those two groups, nobody is wrong. That’s art, and your art isn’t wrong.

Clear Skies – KA

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