Beginning Astrophotography: Cheshire Grin

Thin waxing crescent moon, turned upward like an askew grin, surrounded by blackness
Waxing crescent moon setting in the west, photographed about 8:45 p.m. PDT (image stacked from thirty-nine individual photos taken by a Sony α6300 camera through a Celestron NexStar 5 SE telescope).

Before the waxing crescent moon set tonight, I caught its Cheshire grin among the firs in the west for a few minutes. Then it was gone.

I had to take my telescope (a smaller model, a Celestron NexStar 5 SE) down the sidewalk a little ways to get a view between the branches. I took as many photos as I could before it set too low in the sky, using my Sony α6300 camera connected to the telescope using an adapter without an eyepiece (the “prime focus” technique). They were photographed all at ISO 800 and exposed for 1/25 seconds. The photo above was stacked from the 50% best examples of those seventy-eight photos I took before the Moon subsided among the trees.

The Thing About My Name

I’m just Emily to my friends. I go by “Emily St” in writing whenever someone needs a longer name and there’s no strict, legal reason to give my whole last name. It catches some people up because “St” resembles the abbreviation for a bunch of things which have nothing to do with me.

In this case, “St” is only short for my last name—not “Saint,” not “Street,” not some other thing. I rarely give out the full version because I’ve found it’s unnecessary in almost every situation.

It’s surprising how often the full last name isn’t actually required. For years, I’ve managed to have mail delivered without my full last name—useful so I can know mail from people who actually know me from those who have me from some list. I’ve even had credit card transactions go through okay without the whole last name.


The idea that I might not be going by my “real” or “legal” name might cause someone consternation. But a “real name” is a slippery idea. It comes from a combination of assumptions about a person having a single, fixed name which is registered with a single, fixed governmental entity. This assumption is both relatively recent in history and only true in the simplest cases.

Not only may a legal name for a person vary over time, but even in a single moment, disagreement may exist among various legal entities about a legal name. For example, in the U.S., the moment a judge issues a court order granting a name change, you (and not some automatic process) must then take that name change order to all the various entities, public and private (Social Security Administration, DMV, bank, job, and so on) and get them all updated. Until you’re done, those entities disagree about your name. You can hold in your hand a driver’s license in one name, a Social Security card in another, and be totally in the right simply because of bureaucracy. They’re not even the same governments—one’s federal and one’s state. They have little meaningful responsibility to be in accord with one another (and any bills attempting to create a unified federal ID system have been resisted so far in the U.S.).

Then setting aside legal technicalities, a “real” name is just an idea that can coincide with a legal name or not, may be a single name or multiple. Used enough, a name may become someone’s legal name through sheer use—a name change by usage can be recognized legally as well.

There are people who convert their names through religion, use different names to assimilate culturally, or adopt assumed names for performance or pseudonymous reasons. Do you know Mozart’s “real name”? There’s an entire Wikipedia article about it. Would you be surprised to hear Beethoven introduce himself as Luigi or Louis, depending on if you were in Italy or France at the time?

The process of name change continues today. SAG-AFTRA rules discourage name collisions, so performers often choose new names under which they perform. Names also may have marketing or homage purposes. Diane Keaton loved Buster Keaton. You know Tom Cruise and not Thomas Mapother. Harry Houdini’s greatest escape might have been from the name Erik Weisz.

Seen through the prism of those contexts, what’s a “real” name?


As for why I use “St” and not some other abbreviation, I have a couple of reasons. First, “S” on its own would be even more confusing, I think. It’s less unique and might look like (in handwriting especially) like I’m just pluralizing my first name.

I also liked the way it looked when I signed it. I could cross the final flourish with a downstroke.

Scripted signature signed as "Emily St"

It began at my first tech job, where everyone was assigned usernames with three-letter acronyms, and for some reason, I was given “est.” I took to expanding that out—I can’t remember where exactly first—so my first name would be included.

It was pretty unique—easy to find as a username in places. It had no strong flavor of personality beyond being my name, so I probably wouldn’t tire of it. It was short. I managed to find a Web domain version of it online.

It sometimes confuses people that I shorten it this way—it’s not an initial, but it has no vowels, so it’s not a word. So sometimes I slap a big asterisk on the end—Emily St*—so it looks like something is omitted. (Putting a dot just made people say “Saint” or “Street,” as if part of the name got lopped off.)

That’s all there is to it—it’s just my first name and part of my last name. Nothing more. If you meet me, you can call me by my first name. If you really need to, you can sound out the letters “ess tee,” or just ask me my last name in person. (I don’t mind people knowing. I just don’t commit it to writing without a good reason.)

The Putty

A long time ago, when I was still a young buck in middle school, I was sitting around with my best friend at his trailer playing around, and I noticed a giant tub of what I took to be Silly Putty. Had to have been half a gallon of the stuff, pink, in a white plastic tub.

I thought: hell, yes, tub of putty. Gonna play with some putty. Gonna just scoop up a bunch of this putty, and—it’s a rock. I can’t shove my hand in. I only left finger dimples.

My friend told me it’s putty for physical therapy. “You squeeze it with your hand.” He dipped his hand in slowly, and it gave way to his light touch.

He explained, in middle-school words, that the viscosity makes it resist any flow faster than a fixed rate. You can’t make it flow any faster, no matter how much effort you put in. You can’t speed it up. To shape it, to squeeze it, it doesn’t matter how much force you put in. It always flows at the same speed.

I tried it. He was right. It felt soft and yielding as long as I applied very little force. If I added more force, it responded with obstinate indifference.

He was able to scoop it up smoothly because he allowed his hand time to sink in without shoving. I had thought of it as a liquid like any other that would simply make room for me as I pushed my hand in, but it didn’t. It pushed back. No effort on my part made a difference. Only time mattered.


Early on in my life, many things came easily to me. By that, I mean I learned new information easily and retained it. Some things came more quickly to me that did not come as quickly to others, and I was encouraged for it. I became accustomed to gliding through tasks superficially. I used my innate aptitude to move past unpleasant work as quickly as possible and attend to my interests. But this was an undisciplined way to live. The more I indulged only what came easily, the more I neglected other aptitudes I should have nurtured.

Later came problems for which I had less inherent aptitude—whether that meant synthesizing existing knowledge to adapt to novel situations, coping with uncertainty or ambiguity, training for physical tasks, or understanding and empathizing with new people. I had no ready-made shortcut here. When the time passed beyond which I could no longer ignore these problems, my instinct was again to find some other way to speed up my approach.

I had formed a habit of rushing of which I wasn’t even aware. I also didn’t like being caught off-guard and unprepared.

I figured maybe I could power through these new situations with a burst of concentrated effort. It made sense to me. If I could just summon up one good wind, I could quickly clear whatever problem and—ironically—avoid self-discipline again.

However, I often encountered frustration instead, and I tended to begin by blaming my frustration on extrinsic factors. At work, for example, I blamed the documentation, training material, or managers. I blamed the people around me for confusing me or misleading me. I dismissed or downplayed the subject’s importance. After a while, these excuses stopped working, and my frustration then turned inward. I ended up blaming myself.

My life—one with a relative lack of financial privilege until recently—had a way of forcing me through the hardship of those episodes, just to survive and make my way, and I’m better off for it today. I can look back at times when I finally saw what had to happen, acted on it, and grew from it. I only regret that I had to pass through so much needless, self-inflicted frustration, pain, and blame along the way.

I’ve begun thinking more and more about that physical therapy putty as I get older. I think we’re the putty.

To learn—to grow—we must change, in a real and physical sense, by reshaping our brains and (sometimes) our bodies. This is a process that takes time. Laborious effort makes no dramatic difference in the rate at which this happens, the way a novice cannot just throw a massive amount of weight onto the rack at the gym to get stronger right away. On the other hand, neither can it be slowed by failing to bring all our effort to bear—so long as we devote the time and commit to some progress—nor initial lack of innate ability. We inevitably change as a function of time, provided we keep going, bit by bit, every day.

I have thought about this as I learned guitar. I thought about it when I learned French. I thought about it when I taught myself to juggle. I thought about it as I tried to train my eye to see through a telescope. And I thought about it as I recognized the pattern of discomfort I move through as I begin a new job. As long as I kept at it, I improved—usually just about at the same pace from one experience to the next.

I learned that new kinds of growth came from applying myself and then just waiting, and from accommodating within myself the discomfort of that waiting.

I have often avoided uncertainty in my life out of fear, I think. I’ve never been encouraged to be uncertain or doubtful. Not having the answers makes me vulnerable because it undermines the very thing that set me apart early in life and made me feel more capable. With that vulnerability then comes discomfort because I am unkind to myself when I notice I’m unable to meet my own expectations. Worst of all, it feels inescapable in the moment: there’s just no way to get easy answers, an easy fix, a magic word. It’s tempting to believe—after half a lifetime of being addicted to all the answers coming so quickly—that you’re failing, and it’s your fault.

However, I believe uncertainty, discomfort, and self-forgiveness are precisely the traits I need in order to grow beyond superficial knowledge acquisition, so that I may find kindness and connect to new things and people I could not have done when I was younger. Cultivating these traits allow me to surrender myself in the present to the passage of time and all it brings—and eventually to new circumstances and possibilities I would not have had otherwise. There are matters of experience which I cannot touch intellectually, no matter how hard I try.

The hell of it is, I still don’t know how I will do these things yet. I think that’s okay for now, as long as I keep trying.


(I am grateful to Amy Farrell and to Sophie for their constructive feedback on my earlier drafts of this post.)

The Shareholder Primacy Myth

I used to hold a common misconception about corporations in the United States that I’ve seen commonly shared by friends and strangers online. I believed that the executive leadership of corporations was legally mandated to prioritize and maximize profit for shareholders, putting this duty above all other considerations. I’ve since learned that this misapprehension is, at best, controversial, and at worst, outright false and dangerous.

The doctrine of prioritizing shareholder interests above all others is called shareholder primacy. It appears to have been promulgated in particular by theorist Milton Friedman (an economic theorist who advised U.S. President Reagan and UK Prime Minister Thatcher, espousing free-market policies with minimal government interference).1

The initial notion of shareholder primacy in the U.S. seems to come from a misinterpretation of a case called Dodge v. Ford Motor Company. That took place back in 1919, when Henry Ford wanted to take surplus profits from his publicly shared company and, rather than continuing dividends, reinvest those into his factories and workforce. Shareholders took him to court, and the court forced him to pay dividends.

The judgment in this case, its interpretation, and its context are more complex than I feel willing to stretch as a non-lawyer. However, I understand most definitely—based on that case and case law afterward, which states unambiguously what limits courts have to interfere in business decisions—that Dodge v. Ford Motor Company did not establish the shareholder primacy doctrine as it lives, in myth, today. In that case, the court ruled that (emphasis mine),

courts of equity will not interfere in the management of the directors unless it is clearly made to appear that they are guilty of fraud or misappropriation of the corporate funds, or refuse to declare a dividend when the corporation has a surplus of net profits which it can, without detriment to its business, divide among its stockholders, and when a refusal to do so would amount to such an abuse of discretion as would constitute a fraud, or breach of that good faith which they are bound to exercise towards the stockholders.

Subsequent case law has only underscored the original intent. Case law has evolved into a doctrine called the “business judgment rule” in many common law countries, including the U.S.2 It gives corporate business leaders generous autonomy in making business decisions, even ones that sacrifice short-term profit or reduce shareholder value, so long as those decisions aren’t outright profligate, fraudulent, and so on. Duty to the shareholders is grounded in dealing fairly, not submissively.

The business judgment rule allows that, “in making business decisions not involving direct self-interest or self-dealing, corporate directors act on an informed basis, in good faith, and in the honest belief that their actions are in the corporation’s best interest.”3

So it seems clear that the shareholder primacy myth was predicated on, charitably speaking, a misunderstanding of case law. If there were any doubt about the interpretation of the judgment in Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, there are subsequent cases which have provided clear precedent and tests of the court’s powers in matters of executive decision making.

The next time someone tells you that corporations exist only, or first and foremost, to serve the shareholders, you know now that belief has no basis in law, if not reality. Where CEOs and boards hold themselves to the standard of conduct that shareholder primacy implies—always capitulating to shareholder whims, prioritizing share price and profit in every decision—they are imposing their own independent values and beliefs on corporate governance. Shareholder primacy is itself a leadership decision, not a law.

Beginning Astrophotography: Day for Night: The 2017 Eclipse

View screen of the Sony α6300 camera during the later parts of the eclipse
View screen of the Sony α6300 camera during the later parts of the eclipse, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus

I had promised myself I wouldn’t bother with photography during the 2017 eclipse. I had figured everyone else would take such far better photos that I shouldn’t bother. But I knew I wouldn’t miss seeing totality for the world, and as the time approached, I found myself bringing all of my equipment, “just in case.”

Detail showing the Sony α6300 camera adapted to the Celestron eleven-inch telescope I used to photograph and video portions of the eclipse
Detail showing the Sony α6300 camera adapted to the Celestron eleven-inch telescope I used to photograph and video portions of the eclipse

I kept having this debate with myself about how I would spend my precious minute and eight seconds (the duration of totality allotted to me where I ended up). Do I passively observe? Or do I try to capture the experience?

Actually, people kept expecting me to take photos. They were excited for them in advance, and each time I tried to let them down gently—”I might just let the experts take the photos and sit back and enjoy the show”—I felt more and more like I was kidding myself. In the end I decided all the hours of solitude at the telescope over the last two years, all the practice, all the writing I’ve done here—they’ve engendered in me the confidence to photograph the eclipse up close, and I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t try.

The Night Before

I drove to a friend’s farm for the eclipse, in the area of Molalla, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley (the same place where I photographed the Milky Way the month before). I had been invited to come the day before so that I could stay and watch the event the next day, and my host had also invited possibly a hundred people to come for a pig roast that Sunday. It was a kind of impromptu country fair, and I met a lot of people that day.

As night fell, I set up the telescope and aimed it on Saturn so I could make sure the motors and optics were still in working order. There was a panicked moment when I thought I had lost the control cable for the declination motor! But after some fooling around with collimation and other setup, I got it aimed on Saturn and invited everyone to form a line to see. Nothing impresses quite like it!

People began to turn in, and I stayed up a bit later to look at other parks of the Milky Way’s core. Quite randomly, as I shifted the telescope about the core, I happened upon a smudge I didn’t recognize but was rather bright. I couldn’t make out through the eyepiece quite what it was, so I found my camera and began photographing it for later identification.

The Omega Nebula, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The Omega Nebula, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

Later, after the whole thing was over and I got home, I turned to a program called solve-field from Astrometry.net. It used the star field in the background to determine the area of the sky this photo was taken in. It plotted the nebula as the Omega Nebula.

It’s one of my favorite photos of the weekend, and it was entirely happenstance!

The Morning of the Eclipse

I was up early, having barely slept—new place, lots of people coming and going. There were dozens of people encamped where I was. I arose by seven and gradually made my way out. I determined where the sun would finally be and moved the telescope out to a prime spot (with the help of some sturdy new acquaintances—thanks, friends!).

Next was putting on a filter. I had a couple of twelve-by-twelve pieces of solar filter sheet from Thousand Oaks Optical. Another couple of new friends lent me gaffer’s tape to secure it in place and cover any small gaps leftover. I wish I had a photo of the result, but believe me when I say it looked crude and took a couple of attempts to get right.

I looked through it at the sun in its fullness to see what it looked like.

Full sun before eclipse, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
Full sun before eclipse, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

I had succeeded. I was ready. The telescope’s motor was tracking the sun. Now all I had to do was wait.

Shortly after 9 a.m., we knew it was real. The limb of the moon touched the sun. We could see something we had never seen before.

The moon's first contact with the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The moon’s first contact with the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

Things progressed surprisingly quickly from there.

I have photos during several phases of partiality, but I mostly kept the camera away from the eyepiece of the telescope so that people could look through it. I found that as things advanced, the dozens of people in attendance began to line up, look through, and take smartphone pictures through the eyepiece. I didn’t want to interrupt this as much as I could. The closer we got, the more popular the telescope was.

Solar crescent projections through an ordinary colander as the eclipse progressed
Solar crescent projections through an ordinary colander as the eclipse progressed

I got to see other signs of approaching totality, like the growing coolness of the air and the light gradually fading. Someone also brought a colander so that we could see projections of the crescent through its holes.

Totality

About ten minutes before, I began to take over the telescope for myself so I wouldn’t miss the chance to photograph the parts I really wanted to.

The sun itself became dimmer and dimmer—the same settings I had on the camera captured less and less light. I’ve had to play with these after the fact to make them look brighter. Toward totality, the sun began to look very slender.

Crescent of the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
Crescent of the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

From this point, everything happened so quickly that the sky and earth changed from breath to breath. I watched the crescent thin almost perceptibly quickly, each photo different than the last.

Just before totality, the entire grassy field was covered in shadow bands, which I remember clearly—we could see we were all at the bottom of a vast ocean of air, now that the light from the sun had grown point-like and highly collimated. Muted ripples of white crossed the pale grass quickly, as if we were sitting on the bottom of a shallow pool.

I kept photographing as the eclipse continued, until I could get the barest crescent detectable through the filter.

The smallest possible crescent I could photograph before totality proper through the filter, showing an irregular pattern, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The smallest possible crescent I could photograph before totality proper through the filter, showing an irregular pattern, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

In that slight crescent, there are some places at the sides where the light seems almost mottled. It doesn’t form clean points. I can’t say that either the atmosphere nor my focus cooperated perfectly in that moment, but I suspect some of the irregularities (evident in other photos as well) are from the surface of the moon itself—its mountains and valleys interacting with the surface of the sun. Here I believe I captured the profile of the lunar geography along the edges of the crescent.

Finally, the view in the camera went pitch black, and I looked up from the viewfinder with my bare eyes. The sun appeared to be an emptiness on fire. There is an ineffable quality to the experience, and I did my best to linger, knowing my time was so short with it.

I was surprised how much color and dynamism I saw—a kind of unnatural fierce fire fringe lay just inside the corona of blue-white which feathered out, all of which circumscribed an inner full blackness. The sky beyond was deep blue-black.

Outside of that, I saw Venus to the right. I looked for other planets, but I could not see Mars or Mercury (too close to the corona or sun, I suppose). I did not see Regulus, either. I saw other stars in the distance. It was not a full, pitch-black night around us, but it was a swirling night. I felt it palpably begin to get dewy, so quickly did the temperature plunge.

In a moment, I ripped off the filter from my telescope. Once off, the camera could see again, and it saw spectacularly.

The sun eclipsed in totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera.
The sun eclipsed in totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera.

I took as many photos as I could in the time allotted—about a minute. I didn’t dare mess with the settings I had. I simply set them as if I were photographing the moon (which I had practiced some weeks before) and took as many as I could in burst mode. I figured later I’d just try to process what I could and see if anything turned out okay.

Incredibly, they did, though even these could not capture what the eye saw. I was amazed to see the solar prominences in my photos as well as I could. I found that if I processed some of the photos a particular way, I could even get a clearer view of these prominences and of the fierce orange I recalled.

As totality ended, the light began to overwhelm my sensor again. If I had had more practice, I would have backed off the exposure length or ISO to capture a diamond ring effect, but I did not have this practice, and it happened so quickly that I did not adjust in the moment. Instead, the light began to overwhelm my sensor, revealing the sun in all its power as dramatic distortions.

The sun re-emerges from totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The sun re-emerges from totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

I liked the drama of it, even if I missed the special diamond ring effect. The color was really interesting (that’s more or less how it came out of the camera).

Within seconds after, totality had ended, and I had to race to slam back on my lens cap on my telescope before I damaged my camera or optics.

How I Spent the Eclipse

Now I have hindsight to think about how I spent the eclipse: about whether I should have put all the equipment away and let the experts do the photography so that I could enjoy the spectacle itself, or if I was right to join in by photographing it myself.

I think if I had had less practice, I might have come away frustrated, with poorer photos to show, and I might have missed actually looking down to see shadow bands (I yelled out, “shadow bands!” to call them out to others) or missed out on looking up. I might have ruined the moment.

But all the time I had spent with the stars and moon had prepared me, and I came away with photos that didn’t disappoint me, nor did they detract from the experience in the moment.

In fact, having the telescope set up at all was the best part, and it is the reason I do not regret the attempt. Dozens of people came and went, looking through it to see what they could, using their smart phone to take away their own photos, including lots of children. If I had not bothered, they would not have gotten to see that. I’m glad I could provide a close-up view that only a minority got.

I’m not sure if “beginning astrophotography” fits me, still, but I’m keeping it. I’ve come a long way in the last two years, but I know I have so much to learn. I spent so much time wondering if I should “let the experts” handle the photography of the eclipse, only to learn I had somehow become one of the experts at some point. This eclipse marked for me an incredible turning point as an amateur astronomer, and I hope I keep learning and growing.


Addendum

If I had one regret, actually, the journey home might be it. It took a couple of hours to get home, and I found myself stuck still in a line of cars like this.

Stationary in traffic northbound on Oregon highway 213, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus
Stationary in traffic northbound on Oregon highway 213, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus

Beginning Astrophotography: The Wide Field

Photo of the night sky showing the core of the Milky Way on the horizon
Photo of the night sky showing the core of the Milky Way on the horizon, taken 22 Jul 2017 at 10:44 p.m. PDT.

“You know, ‘galaxy’ means ‘milky,'” I said, still looking up.

“What? No way,” my friend, who was stargazing with me with her own camera, said.

“Totally. ‘Milky Way’ is directly from Latin, ‘via lactea.'”

“So it’s not from the candy bar?”

“No.”


I was taking photos with a new friend at her farm south of Portland. I remain extremely grateful to her for allowing me to do so because they allowed me to my first photos of the core of the galaxy unaffected by light pollution.

Photo of the Milky Way in the sky
Wide-field view toward the core of the Milky Way, taken on 22 July 2017

The photo above was processed somewhat delicately to improve the white balance and the colors and brighten things up a bit, but that’s more or less how it came out of the camera. Taking photos of the sky at large is a very different activity than taking photos of individual objects through a telescope.

Chiefly, there is no telescope. None of this post will discuss using a telescope. I took all these photos with my same mirrorless camera, the Sony α6300, and a tripod. To adapt this camera to wide-field night sky images of the Milky Way, there are two big differences from ordinary photography: for one, using a long exposure and high ISO, and for two, using a suitable lens.

When I started last year, I was practicing blind, experimenting in wintry months, guessing at settings, and using a 32 mm lens with significant shortcomings for night-sky photography. To make improvements, I’m grateful for information I got from Lonely Speck, which I adapted to suit me.

Exposure settings

First, most of the job of collecting a night-sky image is accomplished by exposing with a high ISO and a long exposure period. This means trucking out to a dark site—this activity is absolutely impossible anywhere near a city and impractical in a suburb. You also have to have a camera capable of manual control over its ISO and exposure length, among other things.

Detail of the night sky, looking into Cygnus, taken with ISO 800.
Detail of the night sky, looking into Cygnus, taken with ISO 800.

For my early wide-field attempts, I was afraid to raise the ISO higher than about 1600. I took some experimental shots with the ISO as high as I could go, but few were in the middle ground. I assumed these photos would be unusably noisy. Therefore, the photos which turned out best were at ISO 800, but to bring out any detail, I had to push them dramatically, such that they looked artificial.

The most important thing I read was an article on Lonely Speck about finding the best ISO which explained that ISO doesn’t increase sensitivity so much as it provides amplification of the underlying signal. ISO can be thought of as a gain control for the sensor signal. Quoting,

It’s a (very) common misconception that increasing ISO increases the sensitivity of a camera sensor. ISO doesn’t change sensitivity. Increasing ISO simply increases the brightness of a photo by amplifying the sensor signal. In the electronics world, amplification is sometimes called “gain.” …[W]e can “gain” brightness if we increase our ISO. … Higher ISOs won’t increase the visible noise in a photo. …A higher ISO will decrease the total dynamic range of the image…And, in many cases (like astrophotography), a higher ISO will actually decrease the visible noise[.]

I was amazed to learn this. The article goes on to explain the conditions under which this occurs and how. This meant that I was free to amp up the ISO on my photos considerably.

The other consideration was exposure length. Mostly, the goal is to expose as long as possible before stars stop being points of light and start being streaks. How long this takes is entirely a function of the focal length of the camera—that is, the wider the field of view, the smaller the points of light are, so the less noticeable it becomes when stars seem to “move” across the field of view.

The lens I had used before was a bit longer than typically used for Milky Way photography. It’s only able to capture about the size of a constellation. That meant that stars would appear to move if I exposed longer than about fifteen seconds.

Add these together, and I was taking in a lot less light than my camera was capable of. On top of that, my lens was not designed for astrophotography, meaning that it introduced significant distortions, called aberrations, to each photo around the edges.

Choosing a lens

Corner detail of a wide-field photo showing significant coma and astigmatism aberrations
Corner detail of a wide-field photo showing significant coma and astigmatism aberrations

I had noticed from the first images I took that I had weird comet-looking distortions around the edges of my photos, but I didn’t know why. All the bright stars ended up looking this way.

I figured I might be able to avoid these distortions by stopping down the lens somewhat (and I would have been right, as I later learned), but that would have meant blocking even more light.

Luckily, there was another post on Lonely Speck that explained all about these distortions, called aberrations. I learned that these shapes were a combination of coma (which caused the light from the star to smear inward toward the center of the photo) and tangential astigmatism (which butterflied the distortion apart parallel to the radius running from the center to the star).

These were in-built distortions of the lens. It’s not necessarily that I had a bad lens—indeed, this was a Zeiss Touit f/1.8, an extremely good portrait lens. It just wasn’t designed for work where spots of light in the periphery were meant to be precise dots.

Picture of a Rokinon Cine 12mm lens
Rokinon Cine CV12M-E 12mm T2.2 Cine fixed lens

I found out there are classes of lenses built by Samyang (also known as Rokinon lenses, among others) designed to minimize these aberrations, also having extremely short focal lengths (meaning, really wide fields of view). For my birthday in June, I treated myself to a Rokinon Cine CV12M-E 12mm T2.2 Cine fixed lens. This is the lens I’ve used for all the photos of the Milky Way since then.

The First Batch: Learning What’s Possible

I’ve taken two batches of photos of the Milky Way since getting the lens and figuring out the right direction for settings.

For the first batch, I went to Stub Stewart State Park and waited till about eleven at night. It’s summer, so that’s when astronomical dusk occurs, and you can look up and see the Milky Way (which is visible from that site, though a bit washed out). Being summer, as well, the core of the galaxy is visible in the south, which I’ve wanted to photograph for a long time.

Photo of the Milky Way in the direction of the core of the galaxy, taken 18 July 2017 from Stub Stewart State Park at 11:01 p.m. PDT
Photo of the Milky Way in the direction of the core of the galaxy, taken 18 July 2017 from Stub Stewart State Park at 11:01 p.m. PDT

I followed the instructions from Lonely Speck rather closely, with respect to ISO and exposure, and I found I got wonderful results. In this case, I exposed for twenty-five seconds, and I used ISO 3200. The results exceeded my expectations.

As I processed them later, I found that I captured a lot of the light pollution from the city (which was in the distance in the southeast), and that presented difficulties in processing the photos without bringing out splotches of unnatural color.

I consider my attempts from that night now to be middling, and my ability to process them have evolved considerably as well.

The Second Batch: Finding What Worked

Photo looking up along the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way near the zenith, taken from the farm
Photo looking up along the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way near the zenith, taken from the farm

I was extremely lucky enough to have a very helpful and happy friend who let me come to her farm and do more night-time photography. Because her farm was south of Portland, the core of the galaxy was facing away from all the light pollution. The photos at the top of the post represent some taken from this attempt.

Here at the farm, I decided to lessen both the exposure length of time (down to twenty seconds) and the ISO (down to 2000). The earlier settings, I had found, seemed almost too aggressive for the conditions, though I may revisit them if I’m at a darker site. But twenty seconds and ISO 2000 turned out to be perfect. The photos looked gorgeous right off the camera, almost without editing at all. The results had delicate bands of dust and light in them that were considerable easier to work with as I processed them on my computer.

Photo of the core of the Milky Way taken, from the farm
Photo of the core of the Milky Way, taken from the farm

I took enough that night that I’ve been able to find lots of different ways to process each and experiment with what I like. For some, I’ve tried wild color combinations and gradients. I’ve tried delicate forms of processing or pushing others as far as they’ll go. I’ve learned to duplicate a photo many times over so I can manipulate it in many different directions and compare the results.

This post has been about changes I’ve introduced to the photography process, and in a future post, I’d like to talk about processing a bit more (basically editing the RAW photos to make them pop). I’d like to get better at that first, though.

 

Beginning Astrophotography: Fourth of July Moonshot

Waxing moon as seen on the Fourth of July at about 10:50 p.m. (large file)

On the evening of the Fourth of July, I was cringing every few seconds as volleys of illegal fireworks shot into the air a few houses over on my block. I was outside, poking halfway out my backyard garage with the telescope, looking at the moon to pass the time until Saturn rose over the treetops.

Conditions didn’t allow me any good Saturn photos, but the moon turned out to make a rewarding enough target. I took a minute and a half of video and fifty-eight photos. It probably seems silly, but I’ve wanted to stack the photos from the moon for a long while. The moon is an easy enough thing to see in plenty of detail, but it’s difficult to show it as a vivid, three-dimensional object—the way it looks through a telescope—in a photo. So much gets lost in the translation from eye to sensor, and much of this experience gets swallowed into the seeing disc at the moment of capture, maddeningly blurred at the final moment.

Individual photo of the moon, cropped
Individual photo of the moon, cropped (large file)

For comparison, here’s an individual photo of the moon that’s been converted from RAW and cropped but otherwise not tampered with at all (ISO 400, f/6, shutter speed 1/800 s). You might have to click on it to see it larger to get a sense of the difference I mean. You’ll see the same details from the image above, but they’ll be indistinct. In particular, look at the edge of the basalt plain along the top limb, where the terminator crosses it. Or look at the craters along the lower part of the terminator. I look at that and think, oh, yep, that’s the moon—no news there.

Last night, I tried stacking the frames of the video to get more detail, but the results were only so-so. I was pretty dissatisfied, and because I expected to get more, I kept pushing the image, getting distortions in some of the higher contrast parts of the image. I used all kinds of filters to get what I wanted (deconvolution filters of all sorts, wavelet sharpening, unsharp masking, custom convolution filters, all sorts of contrasting and denoising), but I just made things worse.

I am not sure why stacking from a video gave me a poorer result. The same problem probably limits my planetary photos as well, so it’s worthwhile figuring out. It might be some aspect of the sensor, or it might be that I’m using too many photos in the final stack, more than needed. Maybe I didn’t align the frames properly.

In either case, I took all the RAW photos as a backup, so I turned back to those today and stacked them. All the photos were taken with the same settings: ISO 400, f/6, shutter speed 1/800.

I’ve discussed this process before, but to run it down again,

  • I converted all the RAW images to TIFF;
  • I used AutoStakkert!3 (a beta version of the program) to load them up as individual frames, then stacked all forty-seven of them; and
  • I loaded the resulting TIFF from that stack in AstraImage and, after much experimentation,
    • first applied as much wavelet sharpening as I could before distortions became apparent, and
    • then applied a very small amount of unsharp mask.
Screenshot of AutoStakkert!3 being used on the moon photos
Using AutoStakkert!3 to stack the Fourth of July moon

I’ve experimented a little with stacking, changing parameters here and there to see how the result changes, but mostly I’ve been trusting that it’s doing the job properly and concentrating on seeing how much I can get out of AstraImage, since that’s quicker. I’ll load up the stacked TIFF, make a change, and save a version. Each change, I’ll save, and when I’ve gone down a path too far, I’ll back up to a version that I want and start down a new path. With them all in the same directory, I can then open them all at once and shift between them quickly, as if I were using a blink comparator, to see which changes helped and which hurt.

After I was done with all these things, I took the photo over to Apple Photos to tweak the colors, levels, and contrast a bit and to share.

Beginning Astrophotography: An Update on Jupiter

Image of Jupiter made from video taken on the night of 18 June 2017, about  10:00 p.m., from which 40% of the individual video frames were stacked.
Image of Jupiter made from approximately two minutes of 4K video taken on the night of 18 June 2017, about 10:00 p.m. Video was taken with a Sony α6300 camera looking through a 25 mm Plössl eyepiece on an eleven-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. Image was made from which 40% of the individual video frames stacked.

Beginning Astrophotography: Saturn

Recording a video of Saturn through a 25 mm Plössl eyepiece.
Recording a video of Saturn through a 25 mm Plössl eyepiece.

I have waited a long time since I first saw Saturn two years ago through a telescope to see it again and properly photograph it. For a number of reasons, it took until last night before I finally got the chance.

By changing a few things, I improved my Saturn photos considerably over my previous Jupiter ones.

  • I realized I needed to collimate my telescope. This means that the secondary mirror had gotten very subtly out of alignment with the primary mirror, and I had to use a tiny screwdriver to move it back into alignment. Once I did this, I found I was able to focus on things better. This also meant that I could use higher magnification.
  • I took advantage of the more precise focus by putting a Plössl eyepiece into one of my camera adapters. This allowed me to magnify what it saw and gather more detail.
  • Finally, I’ve been searching out better software workflows and practicing with the software I have to get better at image stacking and polish the results. I’ve mostly replaced PIPP and RegiStax from my Jupiter post.

Example video clip

With these improvements, last night, I took a few longer videos at different focal lengths and with different camera settings. Below is a short ten-second clip as an example of what I captured. It was taken with my typical Sony α6300 connected to my telescope with an adapter through a 25 mm Plössl eyepiece. The video is at 4K resolution.

Software

The core activity of the software I’ve used for improving the images I’ve taken is stacking. What and how I stack ultimately determines which software I use.

I had already been frustrated by RegiStax due to its complexity, instability, and inflexibility. From searching online and reading others’ experiences, they often stacked in another program and used RegiStax for its wavelet features only. The most popular program for stacking appeared to be one called AutoStakkert!.

Once I replaced RegiStax, the rest of my workflow changed too. I began practicing with AutoStakkert and found that it minimized my need to use PIPP. I could essentially load a video directly into AutoStakkert without preprocessing it as much.

From there, the program itself was (relatively) more straightforward to use. There are detailed guides for its use available online, so I won’t recapitulate its usage here—I’m still learning it myself.

Screenshot of AutoStakkert! after use on a video of Saturn showing its features, parameters, and timings.
Screenshot of AutoStakkert! after use on a video of Saturn showing its features, parameters, and timings.

Once it’s finished with the source video, it has taken all the individual frames and combined them into a single image that looks, actually, not that useful, like a ghostly blurry image.

Stacked but unmodified image of Saturn
Stacked but unmodified image of Saturn, before applying wavelets, sharping, histogram stretching, rotation, etc.

AutoStakkert! doesn’t replace all of RegiStax’s features, such as the wavelet filters, so you’re left to do that on your own. I could load this into RegiStax to finish up then, but I found another piece of software called Astra Image that’s dramatically simpler and more powerful to use. This is the first piece of software I’ve mentioned so far that actually has cost money. It has a “Wavelet Sharpening” feature that brings the details right back out. In the very same program, I can apply additional sharpening, denoising, contrast, saturation, and  flipping over the vertical and horizontal axis.

After all that, I get the final image.

Final image of Saturn formed by stacking 40% of the frames of approximately two minutes of video.
Final image of Saturn formed by stacking 40% of the frames of approximately two minutes of video.

Beginning Astrophotography: Deep Sky

I’ve spent so long looking at Jupiter in my backyard that I finally decided I wanted to see if I could spot anything outside of our solar system. Light pollution sorely inhibited my efforts, but I managed to capture a few things! I’ll keep this post short and just share two representative photos I took.

Each photo has a small bit of blur in the direction of about eleven o’clock. This is due to a slight jostle that happened as I lifted my finger from the camera shutter. I’m still quite new at this—these are the first extended exposures I’ve taken through a telescope—and I didn’t know how much this would show up. Next time, I’ll use a remote shutter or a timer. Update: Now that I’ve had some time to experiment with photos taken later without any camera shake at all, I’ve realized this blur was likely due to collimation error.

Ring Nebula

The Ring Nebula
The Ring Nebula photographed on the night of 20 May 2017 at 23:10 PDT

One of the best things I saw last night was the Ring Nebula. It was one of only two nebulae that I was able to get any sort of decent view of, given the light pollution. It’s a planetary nebula, and it subtends a disc roughly the same size as a planet like Jupiter. It, like all the rest of the photos in this post, were taken by my usual setup, with my telescope stopped down to f/6 by a reducer (which makes everything seem smaller and brighter). No physical filters were applied (meaning, nothing to block out light pollution). It’s been edited lightly to remove the light pollution haze and bring out the color and contrast.

Seen with my actual eye, it looked largely like this photo, but the color was more difficult to make out. It looked ghostly and pale, like a puff of vapor. Color was a little easier to see if I looked just off to the side of it.

Hercules Globular Cluster

Hercules Globular Cluster photographed on the night of 20 May 2017 at 23:01 PDT
Hercules Globular Cluster photographed on the night of 20 May 2017 at 23:01 PDT

I didn’t expect a globular cluster to be any interesting to look at. Most of the targets of opportunity from my backyard were globular clusters, though, and I looked at a few. I looked at the Hercules Globular Cluster (Messier 13) first. It was like a diffuse scattering of dew drops spread on the petals of a flower too dark to see. Each of the individual stars were a bit difficult to see individually. But it photographed decently well.

I saw, and photographed, a couple of others, but their photos were not entirely as impressive, and I failed to note which was which, so I could not properly identify them for this post.

Filters

Future photos I plan to take will use either a narrowband O-III filter or a broadband UHC/LPR filter. The former permits a specific sort of light to pass through, while the latter tries to filter out particularly problematic types of light. Either should help both with photography and viewing. So hopefully the next few photos will be improved! I’ve learned a lot already.