Striving For Continuous Improvement Instead of Perfection.

Astrophotography is an art form just as regular “terrestrial” photography is. As astrophotographers, we strive to capture the invisible beauty of the skies and make it visible for all to see and admire. And as with any discipline, we strive for what we as individuals see as perfection.

From the time we arrive at our chosen site to the moment we publish our final image, there’s a myriad of steps we need to follow. A failure in any of the steps in this process can lead to undesirable final results. I’ve been there many times, as I’m sure many others have been. I’ve had far more failures than successes, although I am seeing the failure rate decline as I gain experience. There are many factors we can control – gear setup, mount alignment, camera settings, decisions we make in our post processing, etc. And there are as many factors that we’re slaves to, namely weather, seeing conditions, light pollution, etc.

Astrophotography is a multidisciplinary pursuit. It requires a solid foundation in astronomy to know the objects, where to find them, and have a reasonable understanding of celestial mechanics. Without at least a working knowledge of the sky, it makes the rest of this process impossible.

We have to have a good understanding of our equipment, how to set it up and how to use it. As “easy” as it is to set up a computerized go-to scope for visual observation, we have to have the process down to a science for photography. Slight misalignments which are acceptable for visual observation will utterly ruin a photographic session. And this is just a basic set up. When you add CCD astronomy camera, auto-guiders, computer control, etc, it gets even more complicated. It’s surprising you don’t need a degree in Computer Sciences to to this.

We have to have a good basic understanding of meteorology to understand how atmospheric conditions affect our imaging. Knowing how the atmosphere affects our views of the sky is an important aspect. Often, skies that look clear will be terrible for imaging due to turbulence in the upper atmosphere. We have to be aware of these conditions that aren’t always readily apparent.

We have to understand photography and how to effectively use our gear. There’s no auto mode for astrophotography. You have to set your camera to manual mode and know the relationships between your aperture, shutter, ISO, etc. And of course, we have to learn to use our equipment effectively.

And last but not least, we need to understand the software we use to process our images. Photoshop in itself is a hurdle that can have even the most adept amateur astronomers curled up in the fetal position in a corner sobbing like a little girl. I’ve had a professional photographer with years of Photoshop experience try to process one of my astro images and it frustrated him to the point he was ready to throw his computer out the window. It’s not easy!

But in the end, we all strive to get that “perfect shot”.

But what is perfection? And is there really such a thing? And if there is, can it ever truly be attained? And if it could be attained, what then? What would one have left to strive for once this hypothetical “perfection” has been reached? This is a little more philosophical than I normally tend to get in this blog, but it raises interesting points.

In my view, there is no such thing as perfection. And it’s a good thing that there isn’t. What drives the creative spirit is the pursuit of improvement. The drive to exceed what we’ve already done and set a new benchmark for ourselves is the real goal. If we ever were to attain perfection, there really would be nothing left to work towards and it would make our chosen pursuit pointless. We;d hit the end of the road.

Any art form (and life itself) is a learning process. As we progress, we develop new skills. As we add these tools to our repertoire, we start seeing things that we didn’t before. We expand our possibilities. Often, we look back on past experiences with the famous “…if had known then what I know now…” afterthought. We know we could have done better. In many respects, we do have that opportunity as astrophotographers. We tend to hang on to our own data. Many of us go back and reprocess old data to try to improve on it. And really, I would encourage anyone to do that. It’s great practice. And it’s a great way to gauge ones’ progress in Photoshop voodoo skills.

With that in mind, I set out to see what I could do with some old data. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been playing with various old images I’d taken over the last year seeing if I could improve on any of them. Some of them were improvements, but not terribly significant to the point I thought it was worth republishing. Others, I couldn’t really improve substantially and realized I had hit the limit of what I could do with the data I’d collected.

That said, there was one image that had always been my favourite – an image of M42 I shot last November with only my camera and a 300mm lens. Until my recent stunning shot of M31, I had considered this by far to be my best image. I’d played with this image many times over the past 10 months because I knew for a fact there was a lot of data in there that I hadn’t been able to pull out at the time. It wasn’t until I developed my new workflow a couple of weeks back that I saw any real improvement in it from the original. I touched on it in my blog entry from September 2 called The Report Card. In it, I posted the image below comparing the original image I published on Flickr last year with a newly reprocessed version using my new workflow.

Image posted Sept 2 showing improvement to my old image due to my new workflow.

Needless to say, I was very pleased with the result, but not content with it. I know what M42 is supposed to look like. I know there’s a lot of nebulosity around M42 and between it and NGC 1977. A lot of that  data was in my picture. I could see a faint trace of it, but I hadn’t been able to pull it off without blowing out everything else in my image. But I was determined to bring out the H? detail. So I set about working over the image again. H? is not easy to capture with a DSLR, particularly with an unmodified Nikon. But I was determined to squeeze out as much of this impossible detail as I could.

Using some layer masking and blending modes (which I how understand thanks to Doug Hubbell’s awesome YouTube channel), I was able to separate this barely visible detail from the main image, convert it to monochrome, and run the “B&W -> H? False Color Black Space” action from Noel Carboni’s Astronomy Tools action set. That converted my faint, barely visible detail around the fringe of M42 into deep, rich red hues that I was able to blend back into my original image to produce a much truer representation of what M42 should look like. It’s not just just a pinkish / reddish blob in space. It’s a large tapestry of rich hues and colours that fades out from a bright core. And I’m now displaying it as it should look.

Flickr link:

So is it good? Absolutely. I’m ecstatic about this image. This is what my old image should have looked like had I been adept enough at Photoshop back when I originally processed it. Is it perfect? Not even close. There’s still some faint nebulosity that I could have pulled out, but I think at this stage, it was more about finding the balance between pulling out the maximum amount of faint detail I could and keeping the image as noise-free as possible. Stretching any more would have brought out noise and pixellation that I don’t want. I did manage to bring out a bit more detail than what is seen in this final image, but the resolution of it was poor with terrible contrast. It just didn’t do the image justice. So I made the “artistic” call to dial it back a bit to what you see now – a nice, clean image.

I do believe I’m near the threshold what I can do with the data contained in this image. After all, this is just from a camera with a 300 mm lens on a tracker shooting 30 second exposures. There was no telescope involved here at all. I’m really not able to get the resolution I need to bring out the contrast and fine details in the nebulosity with such a small aperture. That kind of resolution is the realm of a telescope with much better light gathering capability. And you can bet I’ll be training my 8″ SCT with a 0.63x reducer on it as soon as M42 becomes visible in the evening sky. And I look forward to capturing it from the pristine dark sky at the L&A Dark Sky Viewing Area.

So how does this all tie in to the more philosophical opening of this blog entry?

As much as I’m proud of this new version of the image though, it’s not so much the image that’s the crown jewel here. It’s the learning experience. I put in a lot of time and effort to improve my processes, add new skills to my tool set, and built a better understanding of how things are done. By re-working this old image, I’ve put to practice some of these tools and validated new processes. The learning experience that came along with reprocessing this image is the true prize here. It’s  improvement. And that’s what I strive for. Just like my last image of M31 was leaps and bounds over my previous image of it just a week or so earlier, I see my improvement. But more importantly, I know what I did to improve my entire process from start to finish. And now I can use that experience in future imaging sessions to produce even better pictures. They won’t be perfect either, but I wouldn’t expect them to be. The real satisfaction here comes from knowing that I’ve improved and will improve more as time goes by. So now we’ve gone full circle and we’re back to the initial title of this article. “Striving for continuous improvement, instead of perfection.”

Thanks for your time. I hope you found this article informative and entertaining. Please feel free to share it if you enjoyed it. I’d love to expand readership.

Until next time, clear skies and keep your eyes to the sky.