Thursday, July 11, 2013


My other passion along with art (and bicycling, and ultimate, and brewing, and, and, and) is astronomy. I had been hoping that I could use all this time in isolation with clear dark skies to do tons of great astronomical photos, but it hasn't turned out that way at all.

There are many reasons for this. Most days I get up between 8am and 9am and either bicycle 100km or spend the day hiking, photographing, and just basically surviving. This takes about as much energy as you imagine, and by the time the sun sets at 9pm I'm generally pooped. In this situation the last thing I want to do is wait around another two hours for twilight to be over so the sky is actually dark. (Don't forget, it's still early July so it's only dark enough for astronomy from about 11:30pm to 3:30am.)

Insects are another problem - they get more brazen when the sun goes down and I don't like them. Some nights the mosquitoes are so thick they form a veritable blanket on the outside of my tent. I have established a bit of a ritual to deal with this: 1) just keep moving until sunset - bicycling, walking, working, whatever it takes, 2) set up my tent amidst a hail of mosquitoes, 3) dive into said tent, 4) spend 20 minutes slaughtering the mosquitoes that dove in with me, 5) do anything to not have to open the tent flap again before morning. This ritual generally precludes astrophotography.

Also, I'm not really clothed for sitting around outdoors after dark. I've got gear to keep me warm and dry and happy as long as I'm in my tent or moving, but put me outside and sitting still at night and I get cold fast. So even if I have tons of energy, and there's a breeze to keep the bugs away, I'd still need a couple extra layers to stay warm on a cloudless breezy night.

Now I realize these might sound like excuses for laziness or lack of commitment but let me point out that I was committed enough to go outside at night last winter in Red Deer for hours on end, no matter what the temperature. This leads me to believe that astrophotography while bicycle-bushwhacking-camping is more difficult than astrophotography in the thirty-below prairie winter.

And, I might add, my prairie winter astronomy was very productive. One of many projects I've given myself is to photograph as many asteroids as possible and to do each one on two successive nights so that I can make a simple animation showing each asteroid moving against the background stars. Here is one example, the 200km wide asteroid Metis from the nights of January 25 and January 27 2013, while it was at a distance from earth of about 184 million km. The asteroid is the little white blip that jumps back and forth:

I'm very proud of this little project, so far I've done this for about 25 asteroids and it is my mission to do more.

"Very good," you say, "but what does all this have to do with art?" Well just hold on, I'm getting there. Asteroids are dim, too dim to be seen with the naked eye, but even a simple camera like mine can easily photograph a celestial object that is about 20 times dimmer than what the human eye can see. There are further simple techniques as well, that let me, with my really basic equipment, photograph objects that are 100 times dimmer than what the human eye can see. The technique I use is called "stacking".

Stacking involves taking a large number of images, turning them into transparencies, and layering them on top of each other. You see, when the light from a celestial body passes through Earth's atmosphere it gets refracted and distorted, so a single individual image never really makes a good picture of that object. Also, a camera taking long exposure photos generates a lot of digital noise that turns out as blips and blobs in the image. But if you take many images and layer them all together then the refraction and noise, which are random, get cancelled out, leaving a clearer image in the end. Here is another animation of Metis, but this time showing what a single frame looks like, as opposed to an image comprised of 8 stacked frames. You can see how much clearer the stacked image is than the single frame:

So I have been photographing pottery shards on beaches as the tide ebbs and flows. When the shards are underwater their images are distorted by refraction in the very same way that astronomical images are distorted by refraction from the atmosphere. Therefore, I have been experimenting with imaging the shards in the same way that I might image an astronomical object.

For example, here is an image of that square arrangement from Grand Bruit, as a single frame on the left, and a stack of 32 images on the right:

Very cool, but not exactly as expected, right? Well here is another pair of images, this time of a single shard with a single frame on the left and 32 frames on the right:

The stacked image is definitely more true to the original object than the single frame. There is clearly much more experimentation to be done, but I do feel that this is a very rich direction to take.

My project as a whole incorporates ideas of entropy and reconstitution. The natural breakdown of these objects is the entropy, and the reconstitution is my attempt to (temporarily) reorganize them. The underwater images are double entropy (they are broken objects, visually distorted by water), but also double reconstitution (physically arranged by me, but then also visually clarified by a photographic process).

1 comment:

  1. I hope you don't mind, I had to link to this post on my Blog... []...