"Yesterday is but today's memory, and tomorrow is today's dream." - Kahlil Gibran
"The Universe as we know it is a joint product of the observer and the observed." - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Back in October of 2013, I made the fortuitous decision to stop in to Oceanside Photo and Telescope in Oceanside, CA. What caught my eye were the photographs on the walls depicting far away nebulae, star clusters and galaxies. I thought to myself, what an inspiring activity! Fast forward a few years, and this obsession has become my life’s work.
I’ve often said that Astrophotography is like one giant multi-dimensional puzzle. The pieces must be oriented in just the right fashion to arrive at an enchanting work of art. It requires patience, affinity for the subject, and a great deal of tenacity.
The major portions of my Astrophotography puzzle are Planning, Acquisition and Processing.
In the Planning phase, I know that certain targets will be available depending upon the Earth’s position in orbit within our galaxy. Sometimes nebula are more prevalent, sometimes galaxies and star clusters. Since our weather can also have a profound effect on what is visible to us, the Planning phase must be somewhat flexible. The target’s distance and apparent size will also dictate the size of the telescope employed. Once a target is chosen, the next phase of the puzzle begins.
During the Acquisition phase, the presence or absence of light is of prime importance. Due to the lack of light from my intended target, the shutter on the camera needs to stay open a long time…not just a few seconds, but more like 15 to 30 minutes at a time. Then stability, becomes particularly important because I’m taking images of far flung worlds that are between 1,200 and 50 Million light years distant from planet Earth. One light year is nearly 6 Trillion miles, just to put things into perspective.
It is critical to be able to ‘lock on’ to a section of space in a precise enough manner to allow for the stars within an image to stay as round and sharp as possible (in focus), and to capture precisely the formations of a galaxy or the nebulosity. Unlike traditional photography, several hours of images must be acquired in order to set the stage for a quality result. This happens over many evenings. Eventually the results are combined together during the Processing phase.
My own process entails setting up all of my own equipment, but I also access images taken in remote locations: New Mexico & Australia. These differing physical locations provide the best of both hemispheres, because targets that may be available in the Southern Hemisphere may not be visible in the Northern Hemisphere, and vice versa.
For me, the most enjoyable part of Astrophotography is the Processing phase. I use a variety of techniques to make the invisible visible. My goal is to demonstrate the full depth of the piece. As I process images, I must take care to slowly and iteratively expose the fine delicate structures within the image (galaxy formations, faint nebula/gas clouds, stars and clusters of stars).
The several nights’ worth of images from the Acquisition phase are blended to produce the sharpest and clearest foundation possible. The harmonious blending of long exposures and multiple images creates a fertile environment for further refinement.
Because there is virtually no color in space, the assignment of color to each image is where my artistic license comes into play. The subtle work of teasing out detailed structures through the application of contrasting color fields and levels of brightness and saturation requires an elegant progression of patient technique. Processing becomes a multidimensional journey, trusting what is meant to become visible will emerge from the mysterious darkness.