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George Gearless

Am I a cheat? A question of morals.

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Those of you, who are old enough, will remember that anticlimactic feeling when finally receiving your developed holiday pictures from the photo shop. That magnificent vista that took your breath away seemed ordinary and flat.  The pictures from the beach showed a couple of empty beer bottles, a random piece of plastic and a fat man with a beer belly dominates the background in his speedos. Back then, how often did we wish we could remove those annoying little details? Or perhaps even embellish upon them a little bit? However, the pictures faithfully depicted what you did see. Not what you remember seeing.

Fast forward 20 years or so.

Now we can remove the fat man from the picture. We can make the sea look blue’er than it really was. We can even add a few details that our mind remembers, although they were never there in reality. By now you’ve probably already figured out where this is going.

I recently took my very first picture of a nebula (the Orion nebula). The first single photo (no stacking, no nothing) looked unmistakably like the Orion nebula. It didn’t remotely have the luster and colorfulness that we have become so accustomed to seeing in glossy astronomy books and the internet. But it was there.

Then I started the process of grinding my pictures through DeepskyStacker and fiddled with the various settings. And lo and behold; soon a beautiful pink and blue picture of a vast cloud emerged on my computer screen. I fiddled a bit more with the settings in an attempt to approximate my picture to what I remembered from ‘the astronomy books’. Then, a couple of days later it hit me; was I cheating? Did I ‘make’ something that wasn’t there? Did I retouch my beach picture and removed the fat man in speedos? And what if I did?

I guess the question I’m asking is; where do you draw the line?

If I was proficient in Photoshop, I could turn the Orion nebula into a nice green hue. Or purple with yellow polkadots. Pretty as that might be, it would not represent ‘the truth’. Too little processing, and my picture may turn out unrecognizable. Too much, and I might as well have made the picture in Photoshop without bringing out my mount and my telescope. I find myself balancing a knifes edge. When is it ok? And when has the line been crossed? I suppose it’s a matter of personal morals.

Why am I even writing this? Well, I don’t think I’m the first or the only person to have had these moral quandaries. It is futile to set up black and white rules of what is right and what is wrong. Astrophotography is simply too complicated for a rigid ‘rulebook’. So I’m not even going to make the attempt (or ask someone else to). But I would be interested to learn what others think about this. Are you a purist or are you a no-holds-bared kind of guy? Or something in between?

If you are reading this and think “What on earth is this guy on about. There is no problem I can see”, then good for you. If you think you can contribute with your own views on the matter, then I look very much forward to reading them. Maybe I just gave you some food for thought. In which case, I wish you bon appetít.

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It all depends on what your aim is really.  If you are looking for your work to provide purely aesthetic then what you do is entirely up to you;  so let your artistic side go wild.  If you are looking to produce something that reflects what was there , then you should take care not to add information (data);  by that I mean only tease out that which was already there but hidden.

Jim 

 

 

If all you did was bring out data that was alreday there 

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As a visual observer this is something I often find myself thinking about -- will be following this topic to see what everyone thinks!

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For me it's pretty simple, I restrict my artistic liberty and subdue it to data and scientific approach.

I stretch the data as far as it will let me, to bring the faintest details without bringing too much noise into image. I prefer "true color" rendition. Many times I've stumbled across the notion that color is something not well defined and therefore left to artistic freedom. On one hand there might be some truth to it - eye/brain combination does perceive color differently based on number of parameters, but there is also very hard science behind reproduction of color. It's something that I'm "working" on at the moment - developing workflow that will allow very precise and more importantly accurate color management in astro photos.

Only step that can be considered "destructive / transforming" that I use is noise reduction, and I try to keep it at a minimum and pay attention that it does not alter data - just noise handling.

At some point I'll probably include sharpening as well, but in very "controlled" and "scientific" way - I tend to think of it more in terms of frequency reconstruction rather than plain sharpening - making image look sharper. My goal would be to reconstruct original "sharp" data.

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33 minutes ago, kippford said:

I was that fat man.

Oh no you weren’t, IT WAS ME.   😀

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7 minutes ago, NGC 1502 said:

Oh no you weren’t, IT WAS ME.   😀

Fat off?

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It comes down to Science v's Art.

For scientific usefulness the original data should not be adulterated. For "pretty pictures" and art - anything goes.

In spectroscopy for example the only things we can do is darks, flats and background removal. No tweaking, sharpening, colour "correction" - Nada

(Howell's " Handbook of CCD Astronomy" covers the subject very well)

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As there is no rule book, how can you be cheating?   As I understand it, the general consensus (i.e. I could be wrong!) is if you add anything that wasn't in the original data, then that is cheating.  Other than that manipulation and deletion is fine, as long as you describe what you did.  Even if you add something, as long as you make it clear what you have added, that's fine.

For instance, a few years ago we had a nice series of lunar/planetary conjunctions/occultations.  The difference in brightness between the Moon and the planet was vast.  So I took shots of differing exposures and produced a composite.  I stated in the description on the picture that it was a composite.  No-one has yet called me a cheat.

 

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I don't think any of us is trying to kid themselves that our amateur images are produced for scientific purposes. They are intended for their aesthetic qualities only.
Personally I aim to remove some elements of an image: crops, satellite trails, noise, optical / photographic artifacts. And I try to enhance what is left. Some might strive to reveal that which is unseen, others will be happy with something for its artistic qualities.

Each to their own.

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Interesting discussion.  With very limited experience/equipment for astrophotography it hasn't really been an issue for me - all my lunar/planetary shots are single images - not really capable of being greatly improved by processing.  But I think my guiding principle (for me) is that I want to replicate as closely as possible what I can see through the eyepiece.

I have however had a similar dilemma with the northern lights.  A few years back we had a great trip on the Hurtigruten Norwegian coastal ferry and saw some good (but not hugely strong) displays.  Camera's capture the colour much better than the human eye - but the colours are genuine and very real, it's just our eyes do colour vision very poorly in low light.  So I've got wonderfully colourful images - with almost no processing done other than noise reduction.   But they have little resemblance to what we actually *saw*.  Of course we have to 'show off' the best looking ones but I always make sure I explain to people that unless you are very very lucky they rarely look as colourful as that to the eye.  And I think that's the important bit - to try not to set people up for disappointment when they try to repeat your view/image.

Pic attached hopefully - left side the 'original' as per the camera and the right half is a quickly photoshopped version much closer to what we actually saw.

nlsgl.jpg.dd2b13726312e9919f9fc457195e7f5e.jpg

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9 minutes ago, pete_l said:

I don't think any of us is trying to kid themselves that our amateur images are produced for scientific purposes. They are intended for their aesthetic qualities only.

I agree that most of amateur work is not done with "science first" approach in mind, but don't underestimate scientific potential of it. Science, after all, comes from analysis of data and not data itself. It's how you interpret it that counts.

We also need to keep in mind that today's amateur equipment is as capable if not even more capable than equipment used just dew decades ago.

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1 hour ago, George Gearless said:

Now we can remove the fat man from the picture. We can make the sea look blue’er than it really was. We can even add a few details that our mind remembers, although they were never there in reality

I disagree. What made that scene important was how it made you feel. A literal representation of a few random seaside objects doesn't capture anything about how it made you feel to relax there in the warm sun!

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I stretch and increase colour in images and will do a little noise reduction.  I will sharpen them and combine data from different sessions, different filters and different cameras and will manipulate colour in a narrowband image since it is false colour anyway. 

I don't feel this is cheating so long as you are not adding anything structural to the image that wasn't already there - so basically trying to bring out the best of what I have captured, after all many of these features are very faint.  

I think it is also OK to make a mosaic of two images, and do a combination of the same image done with different settings, for instance capturing say Jupiters Moons on one exposure, and the planet on another (as they need differing exposures) and then combining the two images together. 

I am sure most imagers do all of this.  

Carole 

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It matters not at all to me how an astrophoto is manipulated if I like the result. Like most people in this pastime, I know what is presented on the screen has been altered/enhanced to a degree and to taste. To take your thought to the extreme, you could say that any long-exposure photograph is misrepresenting reality as seen here on Earth, and only visual observation is the pure way to enjoy the night sky. You could say it, but only dyed-in-the-wool observers would agree with you, and though I've put in too many hours to figure this past twenty years with the Starfinder Dob, I'm not one of them.

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So if I do a solar mosaic and miss a bit then I cut and paste a bit in I'm cheating but as long as I point it out I'm not cheating hmm :rolleyes:

Dave

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Actually, just to add to my previous post. 

This is called post-processing, and is a skill of its own, and something an Astrophotographer has to learn as has been shown by the varying versions of the same data sometimes shown on this website when some-one posts up their data. 

Carole 

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For me its a 50/50 mix of science vs art. I don't want to add what isn't there - but I also want to show what my eyes are poor at rendering. I try to get as much detail out of it as I can without destroying the image, and that might mean combining different exposures etc.

At the end of the day im in it to create images that I like and enjoy making, understand the subjects of those images a little and hopefully inspire a few other people to look up a bit / be as awestruck by the cosmos as I am too.

I also love seeing different colour renditions of objects that really show a different approach to how I do things, it adds a whole new level of depth to what could be / is out there.

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Good question - and one that I have thought about.

I feel that as long as the final image accurately reflects data that was collected, then it's OK.   However, I also think that it is OK to "invent" stuff as long as you are open about it.  I'm fine using sharpening tools, but I am not so keen on blurring.

I'll happily swap my colour channels around, and I mix my narrowband in differently every time.

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Most folks doing AP confess they are after a personal best it then becomes hard to say your cheating on you, and being a personal best the work must trump the previous work so then we are in competition with ourselves or should I say our previous selves as we excell our abilities and knowledge we get beyond our proofs and must for all we can help ourselves put these short comings back in check. I think when we push images beyond what we know their limitations it is just part of that wanting the benchmark and not wanting to revert back to the one previous.

I am a casual photographer and would likely be more avid if it wasent for this benchmark thing, the one thing I really envy besides all the great imagery is the persistence of those willing to subject themselves accordingly.

 

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15 hours ago, Girders said:

Pic attached hopefully - left side the 'original' as per the camera and the right half is a quickly photoshopped version much closer to what we actually saw.

nlsgl.jpg.dd2b13726312e9919f9fc457195e7f5e.jpg

I think that raises an important point - there is a tendency, especially amongst people outside of the hobby, to 'anthropomorphise' our perception of the night sky and assume there isn't much colour there because we can't see it, because of the way our eyes respond to light and our nighttime colour-blindness.  Consequently a common criticism is to assume the colour has been added, or made up.  Of course, as anyone who's ever pointed a camera at M42 knows, there's loads of colour out there.

For me, just enough NR to take the fizz off, don't over-stretch to show what's borderline not-really there, stop sharpening before artifacts start showing, and avoid the clone-stamp !

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Some interesting points. And I can't really say that I disagree with any of them entirely.

Just to be clear; I didn't really think I was cheating when I ran my pictures through DSS. But I did realize that there is a moral boundary to be encountered somewhere up my learning curve of astrophotography. 

In your heart of hearts, you know when you're cheating. And as a few people in this thread have pointed out; if you volunteer the information about what and how you have altered your picture (or if the alteration is blatantly obvious, for instance as a joke), then no deception has been attempted.

The boundaries are not carved in stone. And the lines we do not cross, are different from person to person. I feel confident that when I acquire the proficiency needed to actually cheat, I'll see it. At which time I, like everyone else, will need to square it with my conscience. I just thought it was an interesting topic to explore and gain some insights from a few veterans.

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Going back to your beach shot George, the fact is that the camera is a very limited tool compared to the eye/brain combination.  The eye itself is not a particularly good optical instrument, what we "see" has been spectacularly "brain-shopped".  The brains image processing power knocks photoshop into a cocked hat!  Other than close vision we rarely perceive what is out of focus, our image has a full depth of field and yet, when we view a face everything else becomes blurred just like a good portrait photo.  We also get a fantastic dynamic range.  What we see with our eyes is the real deal, not the limited PhotoXpress quick print.  So, with non astro it is reasonable to try to recreate the visual experience using computerised brain power.  Deep sky Astro images are different.  What we see through a telescope,  is very limited compared to what we can accomplish with digital processing.  Deep sky observing takes the eye well beyond their design limit.  We don't know what M42 "should" look like  because no ones ever seen it up close!  I guess we can get a good idea using spectroscopy and high res space telescopes but we'll never know what we should be seeing in the way we do a fat man in Speedos on a beach.  We know that our images are blurred by atmospheric wobbling, and we have noise to contend with along with aircraft trails and optical defects.  I think most of us have some idea what our perfect M42  or M31 should look like based on the best of the best on the internet.  Then we see our puny efforts and we try to wring every last photon our of the data we have.  We sharpen and we blur and waz up the saturation, then we calm down and learn to take our data as far as it will go without things looking "forced".  Then we decide that if we only had a better camera, scope, mount, filters, a pristine dark sky with 300 clear nights a year we would be so much better!  None of this is cheating!  We're just trying to overcome a shed load of problems.

I, very occassionally add star spikes artificially., especially with wider field views.  Stars twinkle and are vibrant little things.  On a still photo they can look rather flat so a bit of creative bling can spice things up to give a closer approximation to what we see.

The following are what I regard as cheating - claiming someone elses image as your own.  Using someone elses data and not declaring the fact.  Popping an undeclared white pixel in the centre of M57 to give the impression that you have captured that illusive central star.  Putting a little white splodge in a galaxy image and claiming a supernova find.  This sort of thing won't make you many friends!!  On the other hand, oversharpening an image will just generate empathy, we've all done it!

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From a perspective if the images are for your own pleasure then there is not really cheating because as you are happy with it then it doesn't really matter.

Where I would 'frown' is where data is manipulated to make other people believe something happened or was there.  A good example of this was an image shown by the BBC of the eclipse yesterday.  It was a user submitted image but obviously manipulated to be cut from one image and overlaid on another (you could see the discontinuity).  It made the moon look artificially big in the image and would give a 'person on the street' the wrong impression.

Manipulating images to bring forth information in an image isn't cheating from my perspective.  The 'information' really is there, it is simply that our eyes can't comprehend the data (not sensitive enough) and therefore needs to be enhanced.  Our eyes are not  infinitely sensitive to all wavelengths.  Is the scientist cheating when they show an IR or radio image that our eyes can comprehend?

So from my perspective it is not 'cheating' to bring forth data in an image that allows us to appreciate and understand an object.  It's only 'cheating' when someone tries to deliberately mislead other people through the photo manipulation.  If that person states upfront that is what they have done that's fine because it is simply artistic licence.

 

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Cough...star removal..discuss..

Much of what we do revolves around processing and each to his own in terms of what the final output is but I really struggle with star removal. Star shrinking is iffy but I see where you might do it if stars have been blown out in processing but whenever I see full on star removal, I just want to scream 😱 “Please can you just put them back!”

Is it Cheating? I don’t think so, but it does make me wonder what the response might be if someone’s asked whats causing the nebulosity? 

 

 

Edited by Djt

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