Astrophotography and conventional photography

January 2010

I wanted this first post to be about something I might be bringing up often as I write about other topics.

Astrophotography is a type of photography that can be embraced with many different motivations or goals in mind. Some people do astrophotography to measure equipment (cameras, telescopes, etc), others measure celestial objects (their size, distance, etc), others hope to understand the dynamics of the universe, other do so mainly for their aesthetic appeal, etc. Some people do some or all of the above. Others may even embrace it in many other ways.

My astrophotography is mainly aesthetic, at least at this point. I don’t do astrophotography to find new objects, to measure their distance, to study how they interact with other celestial objects, and I’m not in the business of measuring the performance of any given camera or telescope, although I may occasionally do it to better understand the tools I use and what to expect from them.

And yet, there are differences between how different people approach the aesthetic aspect of this hobby. In my case, at this point in my journey, one of the many things I do is to associate astrophotography to the way one would approach photography of other “daylight” objects found in nature, and I try to use the same elements a “day” photographer would use, recognizing that some elements aren’t there when targeting a dim galaxy or nebula, making out for those missing elements whenever I can and I feel they could help me achieve my goal, and of course, adding to the mix all the elements only found in astrophotography. Needless to say, some typical elements of daylight photography simply cannot be applied, such as the angle (not to be confused with the framing) or perspective, and others, although they can be artificially implemented through image processing, they shouldn’t be applied, as they would alter the true nature of the objects, such as the direction of light for example.

Some people may think that this approach is wrong, simply because astrophotography is very different than conventional photography. My answer to that is, yes, astrophotography is very different in so many ways, but to me, it also has many common elements with “daylight photography” and because of that, I try to apply some of those elements the best way I can, along with all the elements specific to astrophotography. If you believe that astrophotography should be embraced with only the elements that are given by this discipline, that’s fine. But to me, considering and applying other elements, sometimes not very often considered, does not detract the hobby but it enriches it instead.

This may still sound silly but I will eventually write about some of these elements, and about some ways I think they can be used, at which time I would refer back to this post and then things hopefully make more sense. In fact, the main reason to start with this “concept” (not novel BTW) is not so much to make a point, but to place a reference I know I will be using in the future.

For now I will describe what I would call some of the main “principles” I use when doing astrophotography, and I will do so using a “daylight target” as an example. Keep in mind this is not the truth, just my opinion, my view, at this point in time. Say for instance that I would like to take a picture of a bunch of trees.

– As a technician or scientist, I will adjust my equipment to the best possible settings I know to achieve my goal, and apply my knowledge – whether good, bad or anything in between – to acquire the best possible data I can get, being realistic about my limitations and constrains. Here, knowledge is everything, so I will thrive to learn more and more, realizing I will never be able to “know everything” – which in a way it’s a good thing: there will always be something new to learn.

– As a presenter of nature I will make sure I don’t add anything to the trees that wasn’t there before. I won’t touch up a branch because in my image it looked “ugly” to me. I won’t remove a cloud from the image because I was hoping to show a clear sky. And I won’t paint a flower pink because I feel the image looks nicer than if it was showing its natural – say yellow – color.

– As a communicator I may try to craft the image so that the leaves of the trees become the main element I try to communicate with the image, or the trunks, or the forest as a whole, or even one particular tree, or perhaps that eagle that happened to fly by, or both, or why not, the whole landscape… I may highlight the “crispness” of the branches, while keeping in mind the goals I’ve set as a “presenter of nature”, and I may adjust the color saturation of the tree leaves if that helps me emphasize the message I try to convey as a communicator, also as long as that doesn’t detract me from presenting a true object.

– As a perfectionist I will seek for the comments of others to see whether I achieved my goal as well as to find out imperfections in my image. Imperfections when I applied my skills as a technician, as a presenter of nature or as a communicator. I will want to know what others think about the image, both from a technical perspective as well as knowing what they felt the image “told” them. So if I wanted to emphasize the richness of the forest, I would like to know if people was left with the impression that the forest in the image was indeed “rich” or if, on the other hand, their attention shifted to something I didn’t think about, and use all that feedback to better learn what I did right and wrong.

– And as a hobbyist, I will have fun doing all of the above!

Which of these aspects I believe is more important in aesthetic astrophotography? Well, they all are important of course, but if I was to highlight one at this point, that would be communication. Why? Because I feel it’s the one most forgotten.

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