Category: Musings

Sixteenth anniversary of the Northeast Blackout of 2003

It was 16 years ago today that we have the largest electrical blackout in North American history. Known today as the Northeast blackout of 2003, a large part of Ontario and the northeastern United States were without electricity for a period of up to 2 weeks in some areas. In this time, I not only got the best telescopic views of the night sky I’d ever gotten, but also had an encounter that really altered my view on light pollution and how people perceive it. Up until that point, I had considered light pollution to be merely a nuisance, as I had grown up under dark skies.  I didn’t really realize how others perceived it.

I was taking advantage of this blackout to do something I couldn’t normally do – I was out in my driveway observing the southern areas around the Milky Way core with my telescope. I live in a subdivision at the north end of the city, so normally the southern sky was aglow with light pollution. Observation from my house typically was overhead and the northern skies. Having just recently gotten my 6″ scope, this was a great opportunity for me to test it out.

As I was doing my observing, a young couple in their early 20s strolled by on the sidewalk. Naturally, they were curious and stopped to chat. The girl then asked me what in the spur of the moment was a very strange question – “What are all those little lights in the sky? And what’s that big cloud overhead?”

“Those are stars.” I replied in a most matter-of-fact manner.

“No, those are stars,” she said while pointing to the obvious brightest stars, and possible a planet. “I mean all those OTHER ones.”

I paused for a moment, partially in disbelief. Then it occurred to me – this woman had never been out of the city in her life.

So I asked her if this was the case, and she confirmed it. She had grown up in Toronto, lived there all her life, and had never left the city. EVER. Her move to Kingston with her new husband who was in the military and had just been posted here was her first time ever leaving the Greater Toronto area. All she had ever seen of the sky was the moon, planets (which she assumed were stars) and a couple of the brightest stars.

I explained to her the effects of light pollution, how all those little lights were stars, and how the Milky Way she was seeing overhead and stretching down to the southern horizon were ALL stars. I don’t think she was able to truly register what I was explaining. So I popped in my widest angle 40mm eyepiece, pointed my scope at the densest part of the Milky Way core I could, which probably revealed several hundred stars or more in the field of view  and got her to take a look.

Needless to say, this came a giant surprise to her.

“I had no idea there were that many stars in the sky!”, she exclaimed, assuming that was it. She seemed to be under the impression that she was seeing “everything”.

“There are way more than that,” I replied. “What you’re looking at is a small portion of the sky about the relative size of holding a dime out at arm’s length.

I think I audibly heard her mind being blown by that revelation.

I laugh at this nowadays. I often humourously tell this story when giving my night sky presentations at our local dark sky site. But it really put things into perspective for me as to how people are just so accustomed to light pollution that they really have no idea what the sky actually looks like without the glow of cities washing out the view.

Since I started giving these public presentations, the vast majority of attendees tend to be from the Toronto area (a 3 hour drive!), so needless to day, I’ve encountered many folks in the same position as that poor girl I educated all those years ago. And I’m glad that I can show them around the sky and show them what it truly looks like from a dark site. They’re always grateful and happy to have been able to experience it for themselves.

For people in that very unfortunate situation, the sky glow is their point of reference. It’s not until they truly see the night sky for themselves that they realize what they’re missing. Hopefully it changes their view of the sky and light pollution as much as that initial encounter 16 years ago changed mine.

What an awesome picture! You must have an amazing camera / telescope!

Photographers of all stripes have likely heard some variation of the title of this article at some point. Great photographers have likely heard it many times. And as well-meaning as the folks saying it may be, it’s a bit of an insult to the photographer. I know people are offering a compliment, but it still leaves me with a bit of a knot in my stomach to hear that the equipment I own is being credited for the work I did. My hard work, passion and dedication to my craft is being completely dismissed in favour of suggesting that my equipment is responsible for my final results. It just doesn’t sit well with me. I know this isn’t what the issuer of the compliment intended. They are genuinely complimenting me on my work and don’t mean anything bad. I’m not vain and don’t need to be showered in compliments either. But it’s still a little hurtful.

So, let’s play a little game here to explain what I mean.

Imaging saying this to a carpenter: “Wow! What an amazing mansion you’ve built! You must have a really good hammer and saw!”

Or how about telling a musician: “What an incredible song you recorded! You must have an amazing guitar!”

Or how about telling a painter: “What an incredible masterpiece you’ve painted! You must have amazing brushes and paints!”

Or how about this line to a surgeon: “Wow! You performed a miracle lifesaving surgery! You must have an amazing scalpel!”

I think you’re now getting the idea.

Perhaps comparing a photographer’s work to a surgeon’s is a bit of stretch, but in the end, the analogy stands. No one would consider complimenting a professional in most other fields for their good work by praising the tools they’re using.  People recognize that these individuals are skilled professionals in their field. They got to where they are by intense learning and practicing the skills they’ve learned over years. And they rightfully praise their skills and not their tools. So why is it different for photographers?

I’m a relative beginner as a photographer. I started in astrophotography in 2013. Up until that point, I had never used any camera outside of a point-and-shoot. I spent a lot of time reading, researching, and experimenting to figure out how to use my new camera. It was a long, painstaking process to get to where I am today. I’ve put in countless hours under dark skies – sometimes freezing, sometimes being eaten alive by mosquitos, and losing a lot of much-needed sleep in the process in order to learn to use my equipment. Then once that was over, I spend hours and hours of reading and watching tutorials learning what to do with the images I captured. And of course, I also spent an immeasurable amount of time actually practicing all these techniques to see what works and what doesn’t. After 5 years, I’ve become much better at my craft. I still have a lot to learn and I learn new techniques and skills all the time, but I’m at a place now where the learning curve is nowhere near as steep as it was in my formative days.

That said, equipment does play a role in the outcome. Like with anything, having the proper tools for a job is imperative. But it doesn’t mean the tools determine the outcome. I’ve surprised (and baffled) a lot of people over the past couple of years who have praised particular photos I’ve taken by telling me I must have a great camera. I would inform them that I was using an entry-level Nikon D5100 as my camera on my telescope. The natural follow-up seems to be “You must have a great telescope!” Again, I inform them that I’m using a tiny, sub-$1000 80mm entry-level apochromatic scope – a great little scope by any measure, but considering high end scopes of the same size sell for anywhere form 2 to 4 times that price, it’s really entry-level.  And they don’t know what to make of it. It boggles their mind when they equate expensive equipment with success vs the skill of the photographer.

This year, I realized I hit the limit of what I could do with my camera. I knew the frequency range my sensor could detect was holding me back. The options were to have my camera modded or to take the next step and get a more suitable astro-camera. The former option would have been the easy choice, but I chose the latter and got a ZWO ASI1600MC-Pro. Despite the 5 years of experience I had under my belt dealing with a DSLR, my initial results were horrible. The steep learning curve  was back once more. It once again took me many hours of reading, watching tutorial videos, and 7 actual sessions under the stars at my local dark site before I got what I considered to be my first good result.

Was the result better than what I had gotten with my DSLR in the past? Absolutely. I shot my best wide field image of M31 to date, as can be seen at the top of this page.  New equipment that was better suited to what I was doing DID make a difference. It allowed me to take the next step I wasn’t capable of with my old camera. But in the end, that camera is not responsible for the image I took any more than Photoshop is responsible for the post-processing techniques I use to get my final image. In the case of my M31 image, it actually required a lot LESS processing work than anything I’d done in the past.

But that said, in the hands of someone far more skilled than I at both image acquisition and post-processing, my equipment (be it with my DSLR or ASI camera) would also produce far better results.

Perhaps this is a by-product of this age of everyone having a camera on their phone and an Instagram account loaded with bad pictures. People with no real photography skill see better results than what they can get and automatically assume that the camera is the secret sauce that makes an image better.

And I’ll end this by saying that I’m a terrible photographer. I can do decent portraits. I’ve taken a few cool daytime landscape images. I’ve shot a few random other pictures that have turned out well. But really, it’s not my thing at all. I just don’t have an eye for it. My thing is astrophotography. While I still consider myself a novice, I’m happy with my progression and can see my improvement over time. But when it comes to normal photography, my skills are sorely lacking. I have a fantastic camera and lens (Nikon D750 and Nikkor 24-70 f/2,8). I’ve seen good photographers with their iPhone that can get better results than I.

On that note, I’ll end my rant by thanking you for reading, and as always, keep those eyes and lenses pointed upwards.

Orion Molecular Cloud Complex

Full Frame vs Crop Sensor: Is Full Frame Worth The Extra Cost?

Full frame, crop sensor DX, APS-C, FX, full frame equivalent… These are terms that get thrown around a lot when it comes to digital cameras and lenses. And rightfully, it can also be a source of confusion for novice or intermediate-level photographers who don’t know what they mean or how it affects their photography. In this article, I’ll attempt to introduce these concepts in simple terms and how they can affect your images when their applied to astrophotography.

R.I.P. iOptron SkyTracker (November 2013 – November 2016)

Back in the fall of 2013, I had a decision to make. I had been into astrophotography for about a year at this point, and I already knew winter seriously put a kink into my astrophotography plans. My only telescope and mount at the time was my 8″ Meade LX90 on its fork mount. I had owned this telescope for 3 years at that point, and there were 2 things that were quite clear about it already that worked against me in the cold of winter:

  1. Setup took quite a long time, so I was frozen by the time I was ready to start imaging; and
  2. Once temperatures hit 0ºC and colder, the display on the handset controller didn’t work any more, making navigating to anything impossible.

I had to do something!

Continue reading “R.I.P. iOptron SkyTracker (November 2013 – November 2016)”

Aurora over Camden Lake under an almost full moon.

A Shift In Focus – Widening My Horizons

Welcome to the new Dark Arts Astrophotography blog! It’s been a long time since I posted a real blog entry – barring yesterday’s announcement of my new site and blog. Now it’s time to get back into gear and start posting more regularly once again. I’ve been neglecting my blog over the last several months, partly due to being busy with photography and other stuff. But laziness has also played  a part in it, not to mention my frustration with the Blogger platform. But I digress. This blog isn’t about my lack of activity, but rather about what I’ve been doing over the last several months!

Continue reading “A Shift In Focus – Widening My Horizons”