Why Astrophotography?
By: Christopher Vedeler 2008

Astrophotography combines two very challenging and expensive hobbies into one Über hobby.  It is without a doubt the most technically challenging and demanding kind of photography out there.  We are shooting in extremely low light conditions of very faint and distant objects at very long focal lengths and to top it off these suckers are moving across the sky.  Normal camera focusing doesn't work in low light nor is it sufficient to "just put it on infinity" as even a 5 degree change in temperature requires the focus to be tweaked because of the contracting metal of the telescope.  Critical focusing proves to be exceptionally challenging as it turns out that nothing is harder to focus on than a star.  Ordinary daylight camera optics show every optical flaw, astigmatism and every other conceivable optical aberration as there is no more challenging torture test to optics as a field of stars.  Optics must be exceptional and thus very expensive.  The telescope must track the object perfectly for hours on a rock steady mount while the camera slowly and precisely collects ancient photons.  In astrophotography a 1000 mm focal length and a 2 degree field of view is considered average or normal. At this kind of magnification there is little room for error of any kind.  But with hours of exposure time in the dark and the cold with tired eyes and foggy brain there are lots of opportunities for error.  Invest several thousands of dollars and you can begin to take some pretty nice pictures... of course that is only after hundreds of hours of frustration as you learn the ins and outs of your equipment.  Better and more expensive equipment makes things a little easier but you still need to be out in the dark under the stars to make it all happen and fix the inevitable things that won't quite work as planned. 

Those of us that are into this hobby really need to have our heads examined.  We spend many thousands of dollars to stay up all night miles from the nearest man made light taking hours of exposures of objects often too faint to see through the telescope.  And it isn't like we can sell our prize pictures to recoup the huge costs involved.  Better pictures are easily and freely available from the Hubble Space Telescope.  Even those exceptionally rare individuals that have nice enough images to sell, considering how expensive the gear is and how much time it takes to create a saleable image they would be better off working as a greeter at Walmart than doing astrophotography.  Rarely do we photograph anything new.  The Hubble Space Telescope and other professional telescopes around the world have imaged everything interesting in the night sky hundreds if not thousands of times before at resolutions and quality that are simply technically impossible to match for amateurs.

What could possibly be the appeal of this crazy hobby?  I think that in part it is because it is so challenging that it is so appealing.  It isn't for the impatient or budget minded amateur astronomer.  This hobby takes a lot out of you, physically, mentally, emotionally and especially financially.  But so does climbing mountains and there are thousands of people who go out of their way to do that.  Mt. Everest has been climbed hundreds of times by now, but people keep wanting to climb it.  People spend tens of thousands of dollars and years of their life training to stand on the summit themselves.  Why?  They want the challenge and they want to conquer it and it isn't about the money.  There is something like that for astrophotography too.  "Sure the Orion Nebula, M42 has been imaged thousands of times before, but I took this one!"  

I also think that there is something very Zen about amateur astronomy in general and astrophotography in particular.  Time flies by for me when I get into my grove out in the dark and dawn comes a little too quickly.  Under a canopy of stars, where the Milky Way shines so brightly over your head, you really get a sense of being on the Earth spinning in space.  It is often very quiet and nature tends to move very slowly at night.  It is a time to be still, look up and just notice.  This isn't on TV or the Internet this is the real thing, the Universe, and if you really pay attention you can feel your place in it.  You are tiny beyond imagination, and yet you are also here and aware of the awe.  Like when you visit any great cathedral, it is always nice to bring home a little reminder of your experience there.  Astrophotography does it for me.  99% of my life is spent doing my daily stuff, handling responsibilities, making money, raising my kids.  This hobby gives me the opportunity to remember a greater context for my life and my place in the vastness of time and space.  Astrophotography lets me steal a wisp of the vast mysteries of the night sky and bring them into the light of day to share.  Who wouldn't love that?

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