My rendition of the Horsehead Nebula

18. Down the rabbit hole

In this episode, I take off on some photographic tangents as I fall down three technological rabbit holes.

Show Notes

Renting time on telescopes, managing your color, and bringing an old laptop back to life with free software. In this episode, I take off on some photographic tangents as I fall down three technological rabbit holes.

Topics discussed:


Renting time on telescopes, managing your color, and bringing an old laptop back to life with free software. In this episode, I take off on some photographic tangents as I fall down three technological rabbit holes.

Hello friends and welcome to Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth.

I think most people would agree that we never stop learning as photographers. There’s always new gear to master, new techniques to try, or some new post-processing workflow. For those film shooters, there’s always a new emulsion, developer chemical, or paper combination to experiment with. The great thing about this constant state of learning is that all the skills we pickup, can likely be repurposed and reused in some way. We can learn from both our successes, and our mistakes.

I’m a confessed hobby collector of sorts -- always chasing the next experience. I won’t bore you with all the rabbit holes I’ve gone down in the past decade or so, but there’s been quite a few, everything from getting an amateur radio license so I could bounce signals off the International Space Station, to learning how to solve the Rubik's Cube (and by the way, anyone can solve a Rubik’s Cube, with enough time, patience and YouTube videos!)

Photographer Cecil Williams -- a Renaissance man who always has his hands in many unique projects -- once told me he believed in the philosophy that a person’s life was a sum of their experiences. A lot of thinkers have said this through the years; my favorite is probably from Maya Angelou, who said “You are the sum total of everything you've ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot - it's all there.”

So I’m always trying to learn something new, every day. Even if the knowledge I gain is useless or trivial now, I can probably apply it somewhere in the future.

I took a summer break from podcasting over the past month, and spent the time I would have normally used to write and produce episodes, to explore some photographic tangents. While I generally don’t get into techniques and instructional content here, I would like to mention some of the nerdy rabbit holes I fell into last month, because I do believe they have all helped me become a better photographer, and maybe they will help you too.

First up, if you listened to Episode 12, then you know how much I love astronomy. You could probably guess from my interview with astrophotographer Hap Griffin, that astrophotography is something I desperately want to do. The problem is, I don’t have the gear to image deep sky objects, like nebulae and galaxies. And to be frank, I don’t have the know-how just yet to even put together a telescope, mount and camera system to accomplish this.

Fortunately there are enterprising folks who have devised ways to control telescopes and cameras remotely, so that novice astrophotographers like me can rent time on this gear and image the night sky without ever leaving home. I stumbled across this concept in a recent article on the Telescope Guide website. It’s called “remote astrophotography” and several observatories offer this service. Even if you’re an accomplished astrophotographer you can benefit from this, because these remote scopes are often located in dark sky regions with lower light pollution than your home base.

The obvious advantages for amateurs like me are cost, flexibility, dark skies and time. Let’s say I owned a great scope and imaging system, but because of my location near a major metropolitan area I have to drive more than an hour to even begin seeing vast numbers of stars. Also, remote imaging offers an easy way to get started in the very complex discipline of processing astrophotography images. You can focus your energy into understanding the process, the exposure settings, processing techniques and so on, without having to worry about the technical problems, such as aligning a scope, or spending money on something that you may or may not enjoy after you’ve sunk thousands into a system.

One of the best sites for remote astrophotography is Insight Observatory, and I’ll provide links to everything I discuss in the show notes. Insight operates a network of scopes in the US, South America, Europe and Africa, as a part of their Astronomical Telescopes for Educational Outreach program.

By signing up on their site, you can purchase time on several of their telescopes. You provide the target -- the celestial object you’d like imaged -- tell them how much time you’d like to spend on the object, select a scope, and wait for the job to complete. It doesn’t happen in real-time, but you’ll be queued up behind others who are waiting for time and the service will notify you when it’s obtained your exposures, and then make the raw data available to you for download. Now remember, these are astrophotos, so they require multiple long exposures.

Prices vary, but seem reasonable for what you’re getting. For instance, if I wanted to image M42, the Orion Nebula, for 40 minutes on the 16-inch Dreamscope in New Mexico, it would cost $25. I’d spend that much on gas and snacks if I were driving out to a dark site, so $25 for custom imaging on top-end gear is really a bargain.

You can also purchase images of objects that have already been photographed. These come out to 5 cents a minute, calculated by the total exposure time of the captured data.

For instance, take the data from the Horsehead Nebula. There are 51, 5 minute exposures in the set, resulting in 4 hours and 15 minutes of total exposure time.

So 4 hours and 15 minutes, at a nickel a minute, comes out to $12.75. To me, that’s a very reasonable rate to obtain beautifully exposed deep sky objects. By the way, Insight offers several image sets for free, including the Horsehead Nebula images. Anyone can download them and try their hand at astrophotography processing, and this is exactly what I did. Before renting any scope time, I wanted to see if I had any potential as a post-processor.

And what I discovered is that I know very little about the process. I understand the theory of it: Astrophotos are combined in a program that registers and stacks them to create one image consisting of many minutes of exposure. Stacking also helps minimize noise.

So I was really surprised when I stacked 4 hours of data and I didn’t see anything in the image except a few stars. Shouldn’t I be seeing the result of 4 hours of exposure? That was when I learned about contrast stretching, where the real magic happens. After watching a few YouTube tutorials, my inky image yielded the grandeur of the Horsehead Nebula, but this was just the beginning. I had to combine channels to create the RGB image, then there was the luminosity layer to bring out more detail, additional contrast adjustments, converting to LAB color, sharpening, more noise reduction and so on.

And the result of all that? A big mess, if I’m being honest! It’s very easy to keep pushing those sliders up until you’ve just overcooked an image. There’s a lot to learn, and indeed, creating what I’d consider a “normal-looking” astrophoto is incredibly difficult. The good news is that this particular image set is really a benchmark for deep sky image capture. The detail is tremendous and the shots from Insight are very clean and noise free. They set you up for success, you just need to do your due diligence and learn how to use the data.

I’d go on to process that same image set five more times and each result looked vastly different. Just when you think you understand post-processing, an exercise like this comes along and really kicks you in the teeth.

Now, I’ve used Photoshop since version 2.5, but mostly on terrestrial subjects. Working with astrophotos was humbling and yet, very educational, as I now have a greater understanding of things like lab color, luminosity, and ways to tweak layers and channels to bring out hidden colors. I don’t know if I’ll use these skills when I’m retouching normal images, but maybe the next time I shoot the Milky Way, I certainly will.

I’ll post a link to my best attempt at processing the Horsehead Nebula in the show notes.

Now, as if to ridicule me and my pathetic attempts at processing photos from space, one of my peers recently used his Google Pixel smartphone to capture the night sky. I’m happy to report the results were fantastic.

Using a wide angle attachment on his smartphone, my friend and fellow media producer Stewart, shot a radiant image of the Milky Way that would be impressive under any circumstance. It’s hard to imagine a cell phone being able to capture images like this, where the stacking, registration and processing happens automatically in the phone. I’m also a Pixel phone user, so I’m looking forward to getting out and trying the technique for myself next time we have clear skies.

Another rabbit hole I found myself tumbling down, is one that shouldn’t be a rabbit hole at all if you’re a professional photographer -- And that’s color management.

I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never calibrated my monitors or used a dedicated color checker to white balance my cameras. This is just one of those areas of photography that isn’t particularly sexy. The gear required to calibrate and profile your monitor and photos isn’t terribly expensive, but there are always more fun things to purchase, lenses, accessories and so forth.

And, just being real here, I, like many men, have a degree of red-green colorblindness, so I never thought profiling would make a difference because I have problems seeing subtle color shifts anyway. I rely on histograms and white balance pickers to help me ensure certain colors are neutral and if that fails, I ask my wife for help.

But I recently became interested in color profiling after reading some accounts online that Sony’s so-called “color science” is bad. Canon’s is often regarded as one of the best. You may recall from a previous episode, that I sold every bit of my Canon gear earlier this year to make a full transition to Sony full-frame mirrorless cameras. So, now aware of the community perception that Sony’s color isn’t great, some paranoia and doubt crept in. Not that I could really tell anyway, because the shades of red in question are virtually invisible to my eye.

That being said, I do see a difference between Sony photos and Canon photos. But it’s just that, a difference; I don’t consider one better than the other. Some of the online comparisons between the two systems represent pixel-peeping at its worst -- who really works with images straight out of the camera without some level of toning and color correction?

Reading up on color science made me realize I probably need to calibrate my screens, so I invested in an X-Rite profiler. This is a gadget that sits on your monitor and reads the values of industry standard color swatches that are flashed on the screen. At the end of the process, it generates a monitor profile you can apply that will adjust your screen to render colors in a more accurate way.

After profiling my primary screen, an Asus 27-inch 1440p display, I did notice a richness in certain colors, and shadow areas didn’t look as crushed. The display looked more open and vibrant. It remains to be seen whether this will improve my toning and post-processing. I also added an X-Rite Passport to my camera bag. This is a compact target with swatches for white balance, an 18% gray card for dialing in exposures, and industry standard color swatches that are used in conjunction with a Lightroom plugin to ensure accurate and consistent color in images.

If I have time to set up photos, such as portraits or studio shots, the Passport is very helpful. But for run and gun shooting, I don’t have time to whip this thing out and take a test shot. I do appreciate the white balance and grey targets, and I made use of them in a studio video shoot recently. The footage, shot with my A7 III, was absolutely perfect and required little to no grading in post, so in my opinion, the Passport has paid for itself.

And finally, we come to rabbit hole number three. Now, this one deals with the software side of photography, specifically, free and open source software, and more specifically, Linux-based operating systems.

I realize I may have lost a few people, but stick with me.

If you’ve never tried a Linux-based operating system on your computer, there is no better time than now. Whatever you may have heard about Linux -- that it’s too hard to use, that it’s just for servers, or IT guys, whatever -- forget it. Certain Linux distributions are easier to get up and running than Windows or MacOS these days.

I’ve been a Linux hobbyist since the mid 90s, back when you had to download the install media in chunks and image them onto floppy disks. It’s been an off and on hobby through the years -- more off than on. I’m not an expert at this stuff by any means, but I do enjoy tinkering with it.

If you’re the type of person who likes building and customizing things -- really making them your own -- then you might enjoy Linux. If you’d rather put something together than buy it pre-assembled off the shelf, you definitely appreciate Linux.

But if you just want to click install and get down to working, you’d also like Linux. There’s something for everyone.

So just some quick background. I hadn’t touched a Linux system in years. I was preparing for a trip and I needed a laptop to take with me. My old Lenovo was dead, and my wife’s 10-year-old HP was struggling. She’d long given up on it and I’d been using it as a glorified recorder for podcasting. Windows was running so poorly you could literally get work more done on a cell phone.

In addition to my own podcasts, I edit shows for other producers, so I needed to be able to edit while I was travelling, and I wanted some photo editing capabilities too. I wasn’t in the mood to buy a new machine, so I decided to try and breathe some life back into the old one with a fresh install of a Linux-based operating system.

I yanked out the hard drive and installed a $30 solid state drive, then, from a USB stick, I installed a copy of PopOS, a flavour of Linux designed by System76, a manufacturer of high-performance laptops.

Here’s the thing with Linux -- there is no one Linux operating system. Linux is merely the kernel, around which an assortment of programs are assembled to create a functional operating system.

Certain distributions are great for beginners: Ubuntu, PopOS, Fedora, Mint and Elementary OS come to mind, while some flavors of Linux are geared more towards folks who like to get under the hood and get their hands dirty: Slackware and Gentoo come to mind. I really like Arch BTW.

So here on this 10-year-old laptop, I’ve installed a free operating system, and it’s running like a champ again. Now to install my programs. I downloaded my digital audio workstation of choice, Reaper, which fortunately has a Linux version. Then I added my photography software, using the “Pop Shop” -- think of the Apple Store or Microsoft Software Center -- it’s an application that helps you find and install apps with a mouse click, and it provides system updates.

For photography I installed XNView, Shotwell, GIMP and Darktable.

XNView is a program I’ve used for several years now on Windows to cull my images after a shoot. It lets me quickly view, tag and star images. Then I can filter the images so I only see the starred versions. I copy these versions into Lightroom, so I’m only adding the best images to Lightroom’s database, thus keeping the database file as lean and fast as possible.

XNView on Linux works just as well, maybe better, than the Windows version, and even on this decade-old laptop, I’m able to fly through RAW files and giant JPEGs quickly.

Shotwell is a nice little photo management tool for making quick edits to images. It reminds me a little of Apple’s old iPhoto. Shotwell offers a limited but useful set of adjustments and you can quickly get photos looking decent. I used it on my trip to process shots so I could share them quickly. (Oh and by the way, I’m doing an experiment -- I’ve been shooting only JPEGs recently, and guess what? They look amazing! I’ll talk about that in a future episode.)

GIMP is a program many of you may already be familiar with. GIMP stands for Gnu Image Manipulation Program, and it’s been around since the late 1990s. It’s basically a free, open source clone of Photoshop. I use GIMP if I need to do any advanced image editing, such as extensive retouching.

The last program is Darktable, which as you might suspect from the name, is a replacement for Lightroom. This is a RAW converter with a familiar Lightroom-style layout. It looks like it has maybe even more editing tools than Lightroom does.

When I say these programs are clones, that isn’t really accurate. They are not 1:1 reworks of Photoshop and Lightroom. The layouts and workflows are basically the same, but the nuances are just different enough that you need to take some time to learn how to use these programs or you’ll end up frustrated.

The upshot is, once you’ve mastered GIMP and Darktable, you can liberate yourself from Adobe’s subscription model without paying for alternatives.

If you don’t want to use Linux, many open source programs are available on Windows and MacOS, including both GIMP and Darktable. Your mileage may vary, as they say. I found using these programs on both an iMac Pro, and 8-core Ryzen PC running Windows, was subpar. These programs shine on a Linux system.

Additionally, you can get every web browser, even Microsoft Edge, on Linux. There are free and open source programs to replace just about any type of software. If you need a video editor, check out Kdenlive, or the mighty DaVinci Resolve. Need to replace Microsoft Office? Download OpenOffice. Spotify, Discord, Signal, Telegram, What’s App, Zoom… it’s all there on Linux.

Not to mention, Linux is a great environment for software development -- Python, Rust, Java, C, and so forth -- now we’re really going down a rabbit hole.

At the beginning of the show I mentioned how I’m always trying to learn new skills, because learning new things, even those as jarring as a different operating system, or a new piece of software, or a technique, like astrophotography, has certain benefits, particularly for creative types. It builds so-called “mental sweat” and keeps our minds fresh.

Taking up a new hobby or special interest exposes us to new people and communities and sometimes we make lifelong friends through those shared connections. It adds value to our skillset, and it gives us a sense of accomplishment. Most of all, learning new skills is just fun.

Folks that’s going to do it for this slightly off-beat episode of Photo 365. If you made it to the end, thanks for sticking with it, and if you want to play with any of this stuff, the remote astrophotography, the color management tools I mentioned, or Linux, I’ll have links in the show notes. If you want to learn more about any of these, YouTube is going to be your friend.

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Keep looking out for great images, keep shooting, and we’ll see you next time!