Art is revelatory
Art is revelatory, in the sense that through some magical process, you can perceive something new (at least to you). I want to show you some work in progress, and talk about my interest in astro and macrophotography and how their processes have beed revelatory and meaningful to me. Perhaps this will be useful to you. At Adobe MAX 2016, Julieanne Kost reminded me of the value of focusing on a project: she showed how the common place like long car journeys and icebergs are both revelatory.
Photography has long been concerned with the ephemeral, everyday and the exceptional sublime, but these things often stand in for something else: images act as a metaphor or synecdoche for the current zeitgeist, marking the passage of time, or our own mortality.
In the summer of 2017, I decided to pursue a collection of photographs on astrophotography, my mother’s collection of porcelain dolls and my daughters teeth. Each are also a collection, and their parts refer to a whole. All are connected to representations of women, all I attempted to represent in a reverential way as they represent things larger, grander, idealized, contrast old and new, transforming and more perfect than ourselves: it’s a contemplation on my own mortality and being a father.
"In the cosmos, women are portrayed as either monsters or domestic nurturers"
The quote refers to an Adrienne Rich poem in which she describes the work of Caroline Herschel (sister of William Herschel) and how misogyny is embedded in astronomy via classic mythology.
My mothers dolls also depict stereotypes and projected norms expected of women: they're all representations which are presenting a norm of race, class, body shape, culture of origin and many other things I don't see because I'm a man.
It's this world my daughter is being brought into: a world which women have railed against for centuries in order to attain rights that were conferred upon men, despite language in political theory and constitutions that suggested freedom was a right available to all. It was important for me to observe this fact, and photographing her teeth is a document of her passing from being a child to a young adult woman. I'm not certain what parents are meant to do with their child's teeth, other than remove them from under their pillow, and tell them a fairytale about a supernatural nymph who brings cash in exchange for cast-off pearly whites. I decided to photograph them in order to make them larger than they are, to transcend their size, take up space and generate conversation.
There are many photographers who are more experienced, careful, perform more post-production, and have better equipment than I do. Perhaps I am telling a new story.
Practical Advice: Astrophotography
For you, engaging in Astrophotography might be for different reasons and mean something else, and I encourage you to try it. Fair warning: advanced, experienced astrophotographers use techniques such as exposure stacking using Photoshop or specialized software, and sometimes equitorial tracking mounts, and I will cover neither in this post. Exposure stacking requires patience, care, and experience only gained by dissatisfaction with your results to date, and since you don't have any experience, you can make a mental note and come back to it. Equitorial tracking mounts are not cheap, and also require care and patience. However, Pentax has a feature built-in to their K-1 Mark II called Astrotracer that uses the camera's GPS, in-body image stabilization and accelerometer to move the sensor very carefully over long exposures. However, this is advanced stuff: this article is just meant for those getting their feet wet.
To start, there are excellent apps or sites that will tell you where the darkest skies are (important), when the moon is up and down (also key), when the sun sets and rises, which constellations contain the tragedies of mythical women, and where the Milky Way is. Formulas will help you calculate exposure and determine lens choice. Lightroom Classic is the go-to tool, but a quick fiddle with the blacks, highlights and dehaze in Lightroom CC will tell you whether you caught something big. Then, share it on social media.
Use the camera that has the largest sensor available to you: I use a camera with an APS-C sized sensor, but you will get superior results if you use a full-frame or larger sensor because larger sensors generate less noise at a given ISO. Remember, Canon APS-C is 1.6x as opposed to Nikon, Fujifilm or Sony where a 35mm sensor is 1.5x the size.
Plan your Astrophotography trip using Dark Site Finder or find a Dark Sky Preserve recognized by the International Dark-Sky Association. Once you determine your location, use PhotoPills to determine when in the year the moon is down (rather than up), the sunset, because this will give you the darkest skies. Use the 500 rule as a rough guide or the newer NPF Rule if you have PhotoPills.
The 500 Rule and NPF Rule
500 / (CROP FACTOR OF YOUR CAMERA) / (LENS FOCAL LENGTH) = LONGEST EXPOSURE WITHOUT VISIBLE STAR TRAILS
If you want to avoid star trails in your images, use the 500 rule to calculate the longest exposure without getting significant trails in the images. A newer NPF rule supercedes the 500 rule, but it is far more difficult to calculate.
Lenses & Aberrations
There is an abundance of low cost, fast, wide angle lenses that can get you started, however, seek lenses that are F2.8 or faster. Lenses perform worst when wide open, and can suffer from issues such as chromatic aberration (red, purple or green colour fringing which is fixable in Lightroom Classic) or comatic aberrations which are disc like distortions at the edges which is not fixable in software in which case compromising by stopping down one or two stops eliminates this issue.
Another is acquiring accurate focus. Not all lenses focus to infinity if you turn the focus ring to the marking on the lens, especially if the lens is a focus-by-wire type for mirrorless cameras. Using focus peaking, or zooming to a bright star is your best bet. Or take a shot, and inspect it carefully. For reasons I don't understand, the infinity mark on my lenses do not accurately reflect infinte focus: this is common on mirrorless systems or with lenses that are focus by wire.
Transfer in the field to Lightroom CC Mobile
If you're lucky enough to have a camera that has Wifi, use your camera's Wifi to transfer images to your iOS device to check focus, exposure and other data while in the field. I've had Wifi transfer on my cameras through several different manufacturers and it's a fantastic feature (when it works flawlessly). Previously, studio photographers would use tethering to monitor results, but this requires more gear, more power, more barriers to you getting outside and taking pictures.
Where am I? Using Skyguide for iOS
Use Skyfinder to determine when certain celestial objects are visible, like the Milky Way, constellations and planets. You can plan in advance, fast forward or reverse in time, and use the AR built-in to the app to assist your star searching.
And when you're bumbling around in the dark, reduce your camera's LED screen brightness and use a headlamp that has a red LED setting to prevent your eyes from having to readjust to the darkness frequently.
Practical Advice: Macrophotography
Due to the proliferation of online selling, there is now a market for low-cost light tents with 95+ CRI illumination that will make your objects evenly lit on a tabletop and not appear anemic. Continuous lighting is also much less expensive than dedicated speedlights, however, you get what you pay for.
By far the most difficult barrier is the cost of good macro lenses: they're expensive, yet extension tubes are not. You can get part of the way there using the lenses you have, with the appropriate extension tubes for your camera system. You can get further with third-party specialty lenses which give you 2x to 4x magnification. Be sure to consult your camera manufacturer, as some lenses work well, and some don't: the working distance to the subject can be particularly problematic, especially of the lens is interfering with your light source. Some manufacturers post charts that show which lenses that produce the most magnification with which tubes, at a reasonable working distance. For example, Fujifilm publishes a tremendously useful chart for this purpose for their X Series camera system.
When you use specialty lenses or extension tubes, the challenge is to use a macro focusing rail which moves your camera rather than the focus ring. Your depth of field is hopelessly shallow, and using the focusing ring to acquire focus is a non-starter. You must move your camera by small increments, taking a picture at each position, and focus stack your images, cutting out the unclear areas in Photoshop. Here, you must balance the optimal f-stop with light gathering: at your lowest (f2) and largest aperture values (f22), lenses perform the poorest. At f2 you will experience too shallow depth of field, coma, chromatic aberrations, loss of sharpness and potential loss of contrast. At f22, you will get diffraction due to the small aperture opening, and lose sharpness. I've found that optimal sharpness for APS-C lens systems is often between f5.6 to f8. There are a ton of sites out there that discuss optimal sharpness for lenses, and internet research will yield a result for your camera system and lens at DXOMark or Optical Limits.
All images by Andrew McAllister.