Editor’s Report: Astrophoto Mishaps

Taking the perfect shot requires care and consideration.

NGC6946, in Cepheus, by Patrick Dufour

WHEN IT ALL WORKS Combining technical proficiency with careful composition and processing artistry can produce stunning results, such as this superb photo of the spiral galaxy NGC6946, in Cepheus. Taken by Patrick Dufour of Saint-Louis, Quebec, this image was one of the finalists in the 2017/18 Photo of the Week contest.

Each year, the September/October issue is one of my favourites to put together. That’s because we get to pore over the previous 12 months’ worth of reader-submitted astrophotos and highlight a small selection of the very best with our Photo of the Week contest awards. And to everyone who sent in photos, we say thank you.

Some readers might wonder what separates an award-winning image from the rest. I can tell you.

It’s not that I’m an expert astrophotographer myself (not by a long shot!), but thanks to my position here at SkyNews, I get to review every single submission—hundreds and hundreds of photos. So, in no particular order, here are some of the most common mistakes I see.

By far, “overcooking” an image is the most frequent problem, especially among beginners who find the impressive processing power of modern software irresistible. Solar system targets are particularly prone to excessive sharpening, while nightscape shots are often badly oversaturated. There’s a fine line between just enough and too much—a little really does go a long way. One strategy I personally find helpful is to work a photo until it looks about right, then leave it alone for a couple of days. When I return to it, I often experience one of those “what was I thinking?” moments that prompts a redo, but with a lighter touch.

If an image can be overcooked, it can also be underdone. I’m not sure how the notion originated, but some photographers seem to regard a picture “straight from camera” as more “honest” than one that has been tweaked—as if any amount of postprocessing is cheating. It’s not. At the end of the day (night?), the only thing that matters is the result. After all, a lousy yet “honest” photo is still a lousy photo. Besides, very few night sky shots don’t demand a substantial amount of processing to look like anything at all. It’s just the nature of the enterprise. Don’t get me wrong—minimal processing is the right answer some of the time, but such images are the exception rather than the rule. Even if your goal is to represent exactly what you see with your own eyes, a degree of adjustment will be required to render the scene accurately.

Another common rabbit hole is obsessing over sharpness and noise. Although the two parameters go hand in hand, you generally can’t improve one without diminishing the other. Aggressive sharpening usually leads to enhanced noise, while too much noise reduction produces images that appear soft and unnatural. Excessive noise reduction also erases faint stars and mutes fine details. Equally, too much sharpening makes images look harsh and brittle. As always, restraint is key.

Most deep-sky submissions manage to get the basics right. As a rule, the pictures are sharply focused and display round, untrailed stars. And perhaps because those parameters are tricky to nail down, composition ends up being a secondary concern. It shouldn’t be. It takes only a few extra minutes to frame a target correctly, which is why I’m always surprised when I receive a shot that required (literally) hours of exposure time but features a subject awkwardly parked off-centre in the frame.

Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that astrophotography is as much an art as a science. That means there’s considerable leeway when it comes to deciding whether an image is good, bad or indifferent. When the SkyNews judges sit down to review the Photo of the Week entries, rarely is there unanimous agreement on which shot deserves to win a particular category. However, I guarantee that the photos garnering votes have all gotten the processing, framing and technical details right.

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