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Comet Lovejoy

Comet Lovejoy

On the night of November 27th 2011 amateur astronomer and comet hunter Terry Lovejoy from Australia discovered something that he marked as “probable reflection” with his telescope. He checked back and it wasn’t a reflection at all, it was a comet. This comet named after his discoverer C/2011 W3 Lovejoy  belongs to what is known as the “Kreutz Sungrazers” family, comets with orbits bringing them really close to the sun, the theory is that these comets are fragments of a larger comet that was fragmented thousands of years ago.

Comet Lovejoy started then a journey of amazing highlights for the astronomical community. It’s the first comet of the Kreutz group to be discovered from the ground in 30 years, usually they are discovered using NASA’s solar telescopes such as SOHO or STEREO. After initial calculations the comet body was estimated to be as big as a football field, not enough to survive a close approach to the Sun. Comet Lovejoy was doomed.

Lovejoy Approaching the Sun

Lovejoy Approaching the Sun

While approaching the Sun Lovejoy brightened to magnitude -4, that’s as bright as planet Venus making it the third brightest object in the sky after the Sun and the Moon. It wasn’t visible to the naked eye because the comet was too close to the Sun, lost in the glare. This was supposed to be all, after perihelion the little comet would be destroyed into tiny fragments never to be seen again.

But comets are like a box of chocolate, you never know what you are gonna get. The astronomy world was amazed when the comet emerged from behind the Sun.

It's Alive!

It's Alive!

The comet emerged from behind the Sun and looked smaller and had lost its tail. It was a miracle for the little comet to have survived perihelion but that was only a small thing compared to what was coming. The comet re-formed it’s tail and brightened and now astronomers started to discuss the possibility of the comet being visible to the naked eye.

Due to its orbit Lovejoy is only visible to observers in the south hemisphere it started very close to the sun so astronomers and photographers had to hunt for it a few minutes before dawn, as soon as it cleared some degrees away from the Sun the show started.

Lovejoy at the Milky Way

Lovejoy at the Milky Way

The comet became visible to the naked eye before dawn, it was easy to see on December 23rd, I went to a rural location and at around 3am the tail of the comet rose from behind the trees at the horizon, it was a fantastic sight. It quickly brightened and its two tails were easy to spot with the naked eye and magnificent in photos.

The Two Tails of Comet Lovejoy

The Two Tails of Comet Lovejoy

The main tail curves above the horizon and is made of dust, the secondary tail is made of ionized gas and rises straight from the horizon. As said before both tails were easy to see with the naked eye.

As photos started to come from Australia, South Africa and Argentina the comet became bigger and brighter, people compared it with comet McNaught from 2007 and with Ikeya-Seki from 1965, the brightest comet in the history of mankind and also a member of the Kreutz family. Lovejoy wasn’t that bright, you had to go to rural areas to see it but it was really big with its tail extending for more than 20 degrees.

The Great Comet of 2011

The Great Comet of 2011

There is no formal definition of “great comet” but in some places they say that a comet needs to be bigger than 15 degrees and visible to the naked eye. If we take that definition then Lovejoy is without a doubt the great comet of 2011. It’s huge and bright enough to be an easy naked eye object from rural areas. In my estimations it was brighter than the Milky Way and as bright as the Magellan Clouds but the clouds were very high in the sky and the comet close to the horizon so it’s probably brighter.

Dawn of the Comet

Dawn of the Comet

Lovejoy will now begin to travel fast away from the Sun towards the south celestial pole. It will be fainter each day and it will be higher in the skies of the south hemisphere. By January 8th the comet will be circumpolar at latitude 35 degrees south, that means it will be visible the whole night. It will not be visible by the naked eye but with binoculars or telescopes it promises to keep being a fantastic target.

This comet, discovered by an amateur astronomer, was supposed to be destroyed at perihelion it survived and displayed a fantastic show. It was a great christmas gift for all the people that like the beauties and surprises of the night sky.

You can find my photos of Comet Lovejoy at the special gallery I created on my website: http://www.luisargerich.com/lovejoy

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I will start this small article with my premise:

“If you over-process a night sky image to the point of destruction it will have better results for the general public”

To make my point more clear I will show what I mean with a couple of images. I will start with this photo I took of the Winter Milky Way from the South Hemisphere:

This is a photo I like. It was taken from a very dark location away from light pollution and shows the beauty of the Milky Way from Carina to Scorpius. Dark nebulas as the pipe nebula in Scorpius or the Coalsack nebula in Crux are clearly visible. Other nebulas as the Lagoon (M8) and Triffid can also be identified. The image shows the Milky Way brighter than what can be seen with our eyes because the camera is more sensitive to light but there’s not a huge difference.  For an observer that was in that place this photo will be a good representation of what he saw and felt at that moment.

Now let’s apply a lot of contrast, saturation and sharpening to that very same image. The result is this:

In astronomical and photographical terms the photo is now destroyed. The sky is never pitch black as the photo shows it, the Milky way is never that bright, the fine details are gone and everything is now reduced to a bright blob of light against a very dark sky. It sounds terrible and it is terrible but believe me that the general public will prefer this overdone image to the original. And I also think I didn’t overdo the image enough, more damage can be done and more “spectacular” the photo will be.

I’m not going to do the experiment of uploading both photos to photo-sharing communities because I don’t like to use my viewers as Guinea Pigs but I’m totally convinced that the overprocessed image would win the battle by a huge margin.

So why is this happening? I think it is because the public, without a knowledge of astronomy, is likely to believe in almost any image of the night sky you present as something real. They have not enough knowledge of the sky or astronomy to say the photo was totally overdone.

If you present a photo of a green cow the general public will reject it saying things as “I like the photo but not the processing”, “This is not real”, “overdone”, “photoshopped” and if they have a bad day you can get something as “this is not photography”. Been there, done that.

This happens because everybody knows cows are not green, so when they see a green cow they know the image has been manipulated and they feel the photographer tried to fool them, the result is a rejection towards the photo. If you do the same with a night sky image presenting a bright green Milky Way arching above the hills of a landscape the public will love it. They just don’t know the Milky way can’t be that bright, they just don’t know it is not green and they just don’t know what astronomical features were destroyed in the processing. So without a reason to think the photo is overdone they will just admire what they see and love the photo. The comments will be “stunning”, “I never thought the sky could be so beautiful”, “your location has some amazing skies” and so on.

Even photographers will think the photo is great because they can’t tell the degree of processing applied if they don’t know hoq the real thing is. When photographers without any familiarity with the night sky start their journey in astrophotography or night landscapes they tend to overprocess the images too. This is easy to explain as they try to produce with the photos the result they will like as vieweres.

So what happens if you are a photographer with a knowledge of astronomy? Do you try to keep your photos honest and real but with your artistic touch or do you just overprocess the photo to the point of destruction to impress the public? To be honest I have no idea of the answer to this question.

As an example Iwas asked to present some photos for an exhibit recently and I had to decide between honest photos with a low impact to the public or destroyed photos to generate some “wows” I went with the first option because I need to like my photos too but from a sales, marketing or visibility point of view that’s certainly the wrong decision.

This is a view of the Milky Way above a lake in Patagonia. I took the artistic license to make the sky a little more blue than what it really was but there’s not a huge difference from the real thing. The Magellan clouds are visible on the left and they have the brightness that matches what you would see from such a dark location. There are even some traces of airglow near the horizon, that’s the brightness of earth’s atmosphere and it can only be seen in very dark places without light pollution. You can see them as bands or streaks in a greenish color. I was there and the photo represents what I saw, and what I liked in a good way.

It’s interesting in astronomical terms and I hope it’s also a beautiful view of the night sky, but can I do it better? worst?

When I show this overdone version people say “wow” they point how bright the Milky Way and the Magellan Clouds are, they ask about the location, and viewers with good eyes signal there’s a hint of “aurora” at the horizon. I can either be happy with that or just embarrassed because nothing they say is real and the photo has been destroyed. The big Magellan cloud looks like a light tube up there, I feel terrible to even show this as an exercise but print this photo big in metal paper and you have a winner. You will see people gathered around the photo, you will see photographers that want to take a workshop with you and there’s a chance you can even win some contests with such a photo, it’s novelty, it’s unique, it’s bright, it’s destroyed.

If an astronomer sees the photo, professional or amateur he will be  disgusted. But how many astronomers do you see around you now? As I say “you can’t argue with success”.

If you browse online you will find plenty of images of the Milky Way and other night sky features described as “stunning” when they are actually overprocessed shots to the point of destruction. The question is how many viewers notice that and if that is or not important to the photographer. In most cases the photographer is honest with his own processing, he just doesn’t know he is destroying the sky in the photo, he processes until he likes it. Honest photo, honest viewers, but nothing is real.

This is something that I have been thinking in the last weeks and I think it can create an interesting debate about what is the right way to go. It’s a terrible Dr Jekill and Mr Hyde feeling, I know I can make my photos more succesful if I just make them more horrible to me.

Maybe this is in some way similar to what happens with HDR. The general public loves HDRs, they are bold, bright and they look very real but many photographers don’t because they know the image is overdone to a point they don’t like it any more. So what do you do? Do you process to your likes or do you process to be succesful? Believe me you don’t want to feel that way.

If you ask me I prefer to avoid the wow factor and I hope the viewer can get interested in the night sky and learn how many beautiful things can be seen out there, the importance to fight against light pollution and that if the photo is honest there’s probably a lot to learn from it and that it can be beautiful too. If I get a “wow” from a photo that I know is not overdone then I will feel really good, the only problem is for that to happen I need to go thru many many low impact photos when I could just do a little overprocessing. The debate is now open.

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There are a lot of interesting astronomical events for photographers at the end of 2011, on October 21st we had the Orionids meteor shower, then Jupiter will be at opposition on the 28th. Venus starts to climb higher and produces some interesting conjunctions with the moon and mercury. Finally Mars also starts to climb higher in the sky and becomes brighter. The 2011 show ends on December with the 2011 Geminids meteor shower, always a reliable event even if the moon is bad for this year’s show.

I went out two nights, the 20th and 21st of October for the Orionids. The first night I tried from the coast of light-polluted Buenos Aires, I battled against winds of 40km/h and struggled all night long. The result: Zero meteors, I had hopes for a bright fireball to survive light pollution but it didn’t happen.

This is how the sky looked from my light-polluted spot:

Orion from a Light Polluted City

Orion from a Light Polluted City

Can you see Orion near the horizon? It’s difficult in the photo, easier with the naked eye.

Just before sunrise there was a nice conjunction between the Moon, Mars and Regulus. I took a shot from the same location before packing and going home:

Moon, Mars and Regulus

Moon, Mars and Regulus

For the night of the 21st I escaped to a rural area trying to win the battle against light pollution. It’s not easy when you live in a 10+ million people city like Buenos Aires, you need to drive more than 200km and even then you’ll find yourself near yet another city.

I drove to the County Observatory of Mercedes, 100km away from Buenos Aires. The observatory has nice rural skies, light pollution is only a problem in the direction of Buenos Aires to the East. Unfortunately Orion rises at the East so the battle was on again. The skies were much, much better and I managed to shoot two nice Orionid fireballs just before midnight.

Orionids from Argentina

Orionids from Argentina

The photo was selected as Amateur Astronomy Picture of the Day, thank you!

At 3am the moon emerged from the horizon and clouds rolled in, so it was time to go home. I took a shot of the cloudy nightscape with a fisheye lens to show how bright Jupiter was near opposition.

Jupiter at Opposition

Jupiter at Opposition

Jupiter shines at -2.7 magnitude you can compare it against the brightest star in the sky: Sirius at the top right of Orion. The Pleiades cluster is also visible in the photo. Even with the clouds you can see many more stars from this rural location than from a light polluted place. I will try to be in an even darker place for the Geminids, it just needs some weather help.

Finally a Stellarium capture of the Conjunction between Venus, Mercury and an ultra-thin moon just after sunset for October the 28th. If weather is good don’t miss it!

Moon-Venus-Mercury on October 28th

Moon-Venus-Mercury on October 28th

As usual I’ll be posting the photos as I process them in my Nightscapes Gallery at my website.

I have also added a new option for Matted and Mounted Metal Prints at a good price in the strange event of a visitor liking one of my photos 😉

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Omega Landscape

Omega Landscape

Omega Centauri is the biggest and brightest globular cluster in the sky. It’s only visible from the South Hemisphere and on a dark location it’s very easy to see with the naked eye and a great view with binoculars.

There are a lot of great astronomical photos of Omega Centauri available but only a few showing the Globular Cluster in the context of a landscape or as we call them at night a “nightscape”. In my research I only found a very nice photo from the great photographer Tunc Tezel at Twan (link).

So I went on the task to photograph the King of all clusters in a landscape contest. The photo taken with a 135mm lens simulates what can be seen from a very dark location. The cluster looks small but compare it with the stars around it and you’ll see how big and bright it is.

Most people think “you took a black photo” or “poor Luis forgot to remove the cap lens again”, you need to see it as large as you can in a dark room, then it’s better, I promise.

I think this is a way to show a beautiful and unique astronomical object in a context that doesn’t need telescopes or special equipment.  If you examine the photo carefully (click to go to my site then click again for a larger view) you will be able to find a small and beautiful galaxy: Centaurus-A (NGC 5128) and more eye-work will show you a galaxy similar to our own Milky Way: NGC 4945. Can you find them?

Now I need to find a way to print it, nightscapes aren’t easy to put on paper.

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