How to Differentiate Yourself in a Sea of M42’s
It’s the Orion time of year in the Northern Hemisphere. Images of the Great Nebula in Orion and the Horsehead and Flame nebulae litter Instagram and Astrobin on a daily basis. Images with great detail and small round stars look great, and really do stand on their own, but do they stand out? Can the average person who isn’t an astro-imager really appreciate the difference? Are you happy with our little astrophotography community appreciating your pictures, or do you have bigger aspirations of bringing the magic of space to the world through imaging and art?
There are stages to this hobby. Some stages move to the next, and others never end. Anyone serious about astrophotography progresses through these stages naturally and at their own pace. Then there is another stage that some go to, or try to get to. It’s the progression where art and technical quality blend to put your own spin on images. But unless you’re a savant, living in the darkest skies, I don’t think you can jump right to the artistic interpretation phase of astrophotography. You need to learn the basics first.
Stages of Progression
The first fuzzy image you capture of M42, when you see red and purple and blue gets you hooked. The quality sucks, its out of focus and there’s no detail beyond the core, but it’s yours. You did it. You imaged something only few in the world manage to capture. Just that one fuzzy image and Astrophotography already has a hold on you. You only want to get better.
If you shot that first image through a point and shoot camera, or the eyepiece of a department store telescope, the next stage is usually gear accumulation accompanied by a steep learning curve. While trying not to completely drain your bank account, or take loans you can’t afford, you need to get the right gear to create a better image. This stage never ends, it only gets worse! Learning the software to image and automate comes along in this stage. This can be as easy pointing your scope and imaging unguided, or as difficult as learning multi-faceted software applications to fully automate your imaging sessions, even while you sleep.
From here you can spend years perfecting techniques and methods to get the best images possible from your equipment and location. For me, imaging right outside Chicago, I have to battle terrible light pollution and severe temperature swings from day to night. For you, it may be just figuring out how long to expose for a particular object, or how to keep your stars under control. That’s just the data collection process. Once you get quality data, you start refining the endless processing techniques.
So you’ve made it through a couple years of imaging. You’re images have progressed so far from that first fuzzy single exposure, but they still get lost in the pack. How does your work stand out? Do you even want it to? If you do, this is where the artistic phase of this hobby takes shape. There’s no step by step tutorial for this. You have to find what looks good to you, and what defines Astrophotogrpahy for you.
Our hobby is a bit different than that of a terrestrial photographer. Every sunset and every cloud is distinctly unique, but the deep space objects we image take thousands or even millions of years to noticeably change. Making your images stand out takes a certain amount of artistic license. Whether you’re minimizing or eliminating stars, or changing color pallets, there are steps to take that make images uniquely yours. I can’t tell you those steps, and I really don’t think anyone can or should.
Spend the time learning the craft before you try to define yourself in a field of M42’s. You really need good base data to work with or you could easily end up with something that looks like a noisy mistake. Data is data, but the processing of that data can take literally millions of turns to produce a finished product. Once you consistently get good data, the processing path you take is purely up to you, and none of it is wrong.
Some, maybe many, disagree with me that there is no “wrong”. There are purists who believe that the images we take should only represent the single reality of what’s put down on our sensors – that there is right way and a wrong way to every step of acquiring and processing data. Shifting colors, enhancing a specific area of an object, or reducing or removing stars are all forbidden. That’s OK though. I’m not going to say they’re wrong. We just have a difference of opinion on this, as I believe it really is photographic art. Even the unaltered representation of what your camera spits out is just another artistic representation. With the most repeatable and robotic processing steps we’re all still producing an artistic representation of things we can’t actually see. Most of us aren’t really doing scientific research here. Sure, there is the occasional supernova in a far away galaxy that we all rush to capture, but really, It’s all just pretty pictures of space.
Clear Skies, Bleary Eyes – KA