Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Sketching or electronic imaging?

Often in astronomy the question of visual astronomy (Mark One Eyeball) vs electronic imaging (CCDs) crops up. Being very firmly in the first camp I get a tad annoyed when people assume that imaging is the only way to go about getting lasting souvenirs of a nights observing. All too often I encounter beginners who are itching to go straight past visual observing and dive right into imaging and, often, they know nothing about the sky and how to find their way around it. They don't want to know about the joy that is visual deep sky or planetary observing! They're missing the best bits!
I guess that most of the reason for this is because astrophotos are eye-catching and pretty and imagers garner a lot of praise - and rightfully so because imaging is not easy - for their work in getting the pictures. It's also been mentioned elsewhere that imagers are quicker and more keen to blow their own trumpets than visual observers and I believe there's a lot of truth in this. I love a good astrophoto as much as the next person, indeed I have astrophotos on my walls at home, but while I am grateful for the dedicated souls practicising this art I would like to discredit the notion there seems to be that it is the only way to practise amateur astronomy.
While the magazines are full of ads for wonderful electronic gizmoes and feature lovely photos of colourful swirling nebulae and mysterious galaxies and legions of 'how to' articles on imaging, there isn't a huge amount aimed at the purely visual observer, bar the usual "Such and such is in the sky and you can see it with the unaided eye/binoculars/scope". The UK's Astronomy Now and BBC Sky At Night magazines now feature regular sketching articles by Jeremy Perez and Carol Lakomiak - and this is excellent to inspire others to take up astronomical sketching, although AN is better in this regard because Jeremy gets a couple of pages while Carol, in S@N, gets a mere half page although this is better than nothing as S@N resisted featuring sketching for a long while (I wrote to the editor a few years ago about featuring sketches and got a dismissive reply, I stopped buying the magazine for a long while because of this).
People tend to think of astronomy as an expensive hobby but it isn't and, once you have a scope, you need nothing else except pencil and paper. Give visual observing and sketching a go, it is not hard and a lot easier - and more fun - that you think. Don't let the imagers have all the fun and grab all the plaudits!


  1. Hi Faith,

    I agree. I've been wanting to research and write about this topic too, but keep not getting around to it. I think there's a lot the web has done to dry up support for the magazines, and push them into really going after the sparkly-shiney stuff to keep people buying at the newsstand and to keep the armchair astronomers renewing their subscriptions. But I know that's not the whole story. There's a lot more that has made imaging the rock-star of amateur astronomy. (Like you, I love astrophotos too, and really appreciate the hard work that goes into making them.)

    The great thing as you mentioned is that the UK magazines are making regular space available for sketching. The US magazines are tougher nuts to crack. Fortunately, Astronomy has taken to featuring a monthly 1-page column spotlighting two deep sky objects and a sketch of each. Sky and Telescope is also open to the occasional deep sky sketch in Sue French's column as well as double star drawings elsewhere when the need arises.

    Keeping the sketches flowing, and keeping them in front of people by way of the web is going to be the best way to make sure they get into the magazines at every opportunity. Hopefully we can continue to help keep people from losing sight of what makes visual observing so appealing.

    Clear, moonless skies to you, Faith!

  2. Hi Jeremy,

    many thanks for your comment. I agree that the mags have to 'go for it' with loads of glossy images to keep the public buying them, as the net has taken a lot of custom from them.

    I haven't bought Astronomy for a while, but I'm pleased that they still feature sketches now and then - I think David Eicher is still in charge of the mag and he has always been an exponent of the visual way of doing things, so I'd be disappointed if he and they had started to completely shun sketching in favour of imaging.

    Luckily, the web, more than the magazines, is keeping visual observers connected and, as you say, keeping sketching in the eye of the public. I'm sure the astronomy-interested public/beginners Google for observing tips and if they find sites like yours and Cloudy Nights, and the many other excellent visual observing oriented-sites out there then they will also find that visual observing, far from being dead, is actually alive and well.

    Clear skies to you


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