When Astrophotographers Can’t Astrophotograph

This is us a lot of the time in the UK, with one of the most changeable and temperamental climates on the planet. And this is before we get into equipment not doing what it should, software refusing to play ball, and endless restarts of everything just to get one thing working that’s being awkward and was working perfectly 30 seconds previously. We don’t get a great many clear nights, and the past couple of years have been the worst that I can recall.

The clouds, the winds, the rain constantly conspire to thwart our plans of oneness with a universe beyond our own biosphere. The frustration is boundless as we strive to set up and then have to tear it down quickly again, or cover it or drag the lot back inside because an unforecast rainfall has appeared from nowhere as if to mock us.

Why then, you may ask yourselves, do you do it? My partner, Amanda, has asked many times this very question, and in fairness it’s a perfectly valid one. After all, what we do is time consuming, anti social and inherently expensive.

There’s no single one answer. There’s no one size fits all response to that, so I can only talk about why I do it. So read on if you want to know what drives me to come back to this time and time again, despite the setbacks, despite the weather, despite the equipment malfunctions, despite the frustrations. In no particular order, welcome inside the mind of an astrophotographer.

1. Our Place In The Universe

Being out under those myriad of stars for hours on end can give us a lot of time for both introspection and appreciation of not just life on our own fragile world, but a greater sense of the wholeness of the universe in general. When you consider the size of the visual universe, you begin to realise that we are, to quote Douglas Adams, “a grain of sand on a grain of sand.” Not even getting into the physics and planetary science stuff, but in a universe as huge as the one we exist in, literally ANYTHING is possible. The universe has been around for approximately 14 billion years, give or take, and our own solar system has only been here for 4.6 billion of those. So who are we, in our human arrogance, to say that we are the only “intelligent” life in it? Galaxies, solar systems, planets all evolve at different times, and at different rates, so the probability of there being more life out there is pretty high.

2. Mental Health

Now I don’t know about anyone else, but I have personally come to detest a lot of the world we’ve created. It’s busy. It’s chaotic. It’s totally nonsensical. We sit for hours on end in front of screens where we’re fed utter trash with endless mindless programming of “reality” shows, sitcoms, romcoms, biased news reports of a constant stream of corruption, lies, murders, and other bad news. Programs about “celebrities” whose only claim to fame is that they’re famous for doing nothing other than appearing in this cacophony of mindlessness, and who are lauded and paraded before us as people we should either aspire to be like or worse, to worship as if these are now our “gods.” Is it any wonder that mental health around the globe is deteriorating at an ever increasing rate in the face of this onslaught to our senses and sensibilities?

For me at least, getting out under that gentle blanket of stars at night is a time of peace and tranquility. It’s a place where we can slow our minds down, take them away from the onslaught of the world we’ve created and connect back with the natural world in ways that few can possibly imagine. Some connect by getting out into the woods, going for walks in the countryside, camping in the wild etc. There’s almost as many ways to connect as there are people. For some of us, that connection is through the stars, and it’s through this connection that we can find peace, and make some sense of the world we’re in. There’s nothing quite like looking into the depths of what for all intents and purposes is infinity to gain a sense of perspective.

3. Reprocessing Old Data

This one is a firm favourite among astrophotographers. If the endless clouds and adverse weather are stopping us from getting out there and imaging, then it can be a good time to hone our processing skills and go back over old data with those new skills. Often this can result in a much improved final image.

For example I recently attempted to integrate all of my Horsehead Nebula data. This was originally a total disaster to the point I almost chucked the whole lot. However, I went back through the data and pulled out everything I considered to look even suspiciously like a bad frame and then tried again. This time it was a lot better, and although I’ve aggressively stretched the current version, this is purely down to the lack of data (a mere 97 minutes in class 5 skies.)

IC 434 Horsehead Nebula. 97 mins at 270 gain, 340 offset with the 72ED and ASI178MC

4. Other Photography Projects

I’ve noticed that a lot of other astrophotographers lean towards wildlife photography, and in fairness I’ve seen some pretty awesome images, so hats off to them. But it’s not my thing. Mine is more landscape and I think it’s more to do with the fact that I enjoy the solitude it brings, perhaps as an extension of astrophotography. I have a busy, and often complex life, and although I don’t have a great deal of time for peace and quiet, when I get it, I truly appreciate it.

Pentre Ifan Burial Chamber in Pembrokeshire, taken with the Canon 6D MkII I borrowed from London Camera Exchange in Gloucester

We’re also quite into ancient stone circles and burial sites. The one above is in Pembrokeshire, and was taken last year when we went away for a few days. There’s something about the energy around these places that can be quite hard to quantify. Some of it is knowing that these places are thousands of years old and you can’t help but wonder about those who placed and built them. It’s not just that though. It’s getting back in touch with our ancestors and their more natural ways, along with the knowledge that they had, and has since been either lost or totally demonised.

We’re planning on going away several times in 2022, to as many of these areas as we can. With more than 1,300 such places in the UK, there are literally no limits on where we could end up. I can’t wait!

5. Maintenance

A necessary evil, maintaining the equipment we use is absolutely essential and there may well be a lot of issues that have been cropping up that we’ve been putting off. If you have a long run of bad weather forecast (as is usually the case) then keeping the gear in tip top condition is a good use of that time.

And not just the equipment. Often our filing leaves a lot to be desired and we end up with extraneous files scattered all across our hard drives. I know I have a ton of various FITS files all over the place from where I’ve tried stacking images. Bad pixel maps, unnecessary text files (from registering image files in DSS for example) all add up over time, so going through the folders and cutting these down can yield a saving in hard drive space. It’s boring, but necessary at times.

6. Spend Time With Loved Ones

In fairness this shouldn’t need to be in here, but I’ll add it anyway. Yes we love our astronomy and astrophotography, but we should love our time with loved ones more. After all we chose to be with them and vice versa, and there’s not much worse than neglecting them. So go and do those date nights, go for those walks, have silly times together. It doesn’t matter, just spend TIME with together.

Date night at home. Just spending time together in a busy and complex life can bring a great deal of joy and improve your connection to one another

Over To You

There are a lot of things we can do when we’re not able to get out and do what we do, so let’s hear about the things YOU do.

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