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From One Not-So-Great Photo, Three Good Photos – or How Astrophotography pushes me to up my Lightroom Skills

1. The last of the Summer Section of the Milky Way - The Original
2. The last of the Summer Section of the Milky Way - Warm Tones 3. The last of the Summer Section of the Milky Way - Cool Tones 4. The last of the Summer Section of the Milky Way in B&W

Sun 11.01.15 – Those of you who have read this blog and/or have spoken to me in person about photography know that I get my joy from the taking of the photos and the moment thereof, not in the post-processing activities that are such a part of digital photography. It is the drag and lack of joy of the processing of a digital photo that sent me squealing with joy into the arms of mobile photography in December 2004 – OMG – take the photo and post it to the internet directly from my phone – How Marvelous! No Photoshop! Thank all the minor deities ruling over silicon wafer chips and camera phones from Finland!

By and large in my current photography practice, I use Lightroom to organize, add metadata and titles, and to catalog all of the photos I take, be it with my mobile phone, my Nikon D800, or a real live film camera (negatives scanned to digital files). Other than a few tweaks to white balance or exposure or a crop here or there, I rarely spend much time in the post-processing of my photography. I prefer my photos to look as much as possible as what I and others would have seen at the scene.

The big exception to this workflow is my astrophotography photos that I take with my Nikon D800. While I follow many of the common best practices for how to best shoot my astronomy photos, I currently don’t have a working Equatorial Mount (the one I have is gimpy and makes me want to poke my eyeballs out), thus if I want to have my stars show up as pinpoints, which I do, and not trails I have to keep my exposures to under 15 seconds and on top of that, I prefer to keep my ISO set to 1600 or less to limit pictorial noise.

The short exposure times plus the lower ISO means that I do need to do some post-processing work, more than just exposure and white balance, on my astro photos to bring out the night sky and so artistic choices need to be made – of which the biggest is how much do I let the Nikon sensor do the talking (colors galore!) and how much do I desaturate the photos to make it look more like what my eye saw in the moment.

The human eye for reasons to do with biology sees the night sky in blacks, whites, grays, and occasional light pollution glow. The fantastic colors seen in most Milky Way and Nebula photos your eye will never see, but your camera’s sensor will esp. with filters. Through a telescope the Orion Nebula is in black and white to our vision, but in a photo with minimal through to maximal processing it is a riot of pinks, reds and a panoply of rainbow colors.

I find myself frustrated by the Milky Way photos that I see out and about as they look fantastical – a world my eyes will never see. So, when I am post-processing the astro photos I take, I find myself in a quandary to how much do I reveal what the camera’s sensor saw or do I spend more time at a process I don’t like to desaturate to get a photo that looks more like what I saw?

Most of the time, after working on a photo or two, I get completely overwhelmed and I just stop and tell myself I will come back later, which I rarely do. And so the vicious cycle starts again, the blackhole of my computer eats up my photography.

Last night after I returned from photographing the Milky Way and imported the photos into Lightroom and after working on a few photos, I found myself working on one of the more mediocre photos to see how much I could push it and I did. I created three versions of the photo and posted two to social media, one to flickr and the other to Instagram, leaving my preferred photo for here.

Instead of just posting the preferred photo to this space, I decided that I would post all four photos: 1. The original photo as it came out of the camera, 2. The photo I like best but feel it is still too ‘colorful’, 3. The blue tinged desaturated photo I posted to flickr, and finally, 4. The black and white rendition that I posted to Instagram.

All the same original not-so-great photo, but all processed differently and thus each turned into a pretty decent if not good photo of the Milky Way. It is the joy of the alchemy of this transformation that I can see how many people find their joy in the post-processing of their digital photos.

I still don’t think I will ever spend hours on one photo in Photoshop as I have seen some do, in fact, blasphemy ahead… I don’t have Photoshop installed on my machine right now, just Lightroom and Fireworks.

Gasp. Shock. Horror.

Don’t even talk to me about star stacking software. Gah.