Pretty Pictures

February 2010

I’ve been saying for a while now that in astrophotography there are as many schools of thought as there are astrophotographers.

Yet, every time I see someone using the term “pretty picture” referring to the type of astrophotography that mainly focuses on the aesthetic aspects of imaging celestial objects, I wonder if the work of Ansel Adams or Art Wolfe should also be defined as nothing but “pretty pictures” as well. The images are pretty, sure, but would you use that term?

Yes, the Ansel Adam example is an easy one to make, almost expected.

Yet, the point comes across… I don’t worry so much about how anyone thinks of aesthetically-driven astroimages, but the term “pretty pictures” was first likely used as a derogatory term, yet astroimagers seem to have embraced it to the point it now unequivocally defines a wide range of astroimages, despite there’s a lot more in most of these images than just aesthetics. There’s a reason the cover of an S&T or Astronomy magazine won’t just say “Lots of pretty pictures inside” but rather “Beautiful/spectacular images of our cosmos”. I find rather sad that we are the ones perpetuating the term, but your mileage may vary I guess…

For example, one thing we read every so often is that no matter the processing, the data “underneath” is always the same, so “who cares about fancy processing”. They see this extended post-processing as a way to dress up the image. Yet, as long as you work with your data, what you’re doing isn’t dressing it up, but unveiling features that minimally processed images would never show.

Which brings me to the point I really wanted to make… Probably the biggest mistake often made by some people is to disregard the work of those whose goal is partly or mainly aesthetic as images that are useless for astronomy.

Useless for astronomy? Well, usually it is not observing logs, graphs or inverted monochrome linear images, but those fine (and “useless for astronomy”) pictures – and the science associated to them – the ones that probably most often capture the mind of a young man or woman and spark the plug that will get them hooked into astronomy, for life. In other words, chances are that many of the astronomers of tomorrow will embrace astronomy as their lifetime work in part because at some point some of those “pretty pictures” ignited their curiosity about the cosmos.

Some people have argued that the way to science isn’t found by looking at “pretty pictures” but by a love of the methodology, discovery, and interests driven by anything other than a beautiful picture. As far as this discussion goes, I challenge that thought, because I know first hand some people who had already discovered their love for science, and they have said that it was the view of some colorful images what got them intrigued into what goes on out there in the Universe. They were already familiar with the scientific method, but some images ignited curiosity just powerful enough to direct their scientific interest towards astronomy.

So if your interest in astrophotography is driven in part by an aesthetic interest, keep doing what you’re doing! The world needs you as much as they need everyone else. Just remember, no matter how beautiful our Universe is, and how much we may try to show that in our images, we must also preserve another unique value of our images: that of showing everyone objects, details and structures that add to our knowledge of the Universe, not just so that it looks good when we hang it on the wall.

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