My fixation on the word “why” mixed with an exceptional dose of obsessiveness and frustration has guided many of my pursuits. These traits serve me well as a scientist and also help me in my ongoing effort to overcome the challenges of astrophotography.
Like many of you, I believed that good photographs of the night sky were the realm of the professional astronomer with big telescopes on top of remote mountains or in space; clearly out of reach for me in my backyard. Why even give it a second thought? I didn’t. Normal people looked at the stars, they didn’t photograph them. So I purchased my first “real” telescope to do “eye ball” astronomy. Wow! It was like having a superpower. I tooled around the night sky gazing at the rings of Saturn and watching the moons of Jupiter whirl around the gas giant. I looked at more than planets. Globular star clusters were tight bright nuclei of millions of suns and open star clusters sparkled to life in front of my eyes.
Then things took a turn. It started with “blobjects” as a friend called them. These were diffuse
nebulae and distant galaxies. They demanded astronomical dedication. To make out these objects
required hours of concentrated visual attention sitting in the dark surrounded by cold or
mosquitoes. I managed many times to reach the pinnacle and make out light millions of years old
from the distant reaches of the universe. It was awe inspiring to know that photons this old from
trillions of miles away had ended their journey at my eye. However, where I could share the bright
planets and clusters, these blobjects remained solitary exercises. I had nothing but a sleepless
night and inadequate narrative to share.
Then it began to happen. Someone would ask me what I observed the night before and I’d go and
find a picture to show them. These were in color! My simple eye could only see monochrome in the
dim light from these objects. Sometimes your assumptions keep you blind. I had assumed that these pictures were by professionals. Then I happened to read a photo caption. There were people who, with humble equipment, were capturing these blobjects with stunning color and clarity! I bet they were warm and rested. I bet they didn’t get drained of blood by mosquitoes. I bet they had more than words to share. So I slapped the nearest camera onto the back of my telescope and found out that it wasn’t that easy...