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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Astrophoto: Psychedelic Southern Skies

By Phil Plait

Photographer Russell Brown took a tour of southeast Australia recently (we just missed each other when I was down there), and stopped in the evening on Aug. 6, 2013 to take some pictures of the sky over a beach in Torquay, Victoria. He set up the camera, his wife stood on the sand, and what he got when he took the shot was fairly magical:

Lovely! The silhouette of his wife evokes interesting feelings in me: Itâs brooding, contemplative. And the sky over herâyou can see the bright star Achernar to the left (I saw this myself the first morning I was in Oz) and the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf companion galaxy to our own, on the right.

I found the colors mesmerizing, and I asked Brown if they were real (the purple and pink might be an aurora, I ventured). He told he had enhanced them for effect, and sent me the original too:

Ah, I see. The colors are far more muted in the original but still there. The purplish hue may still be from an aurora, but itâs hard to say for sure. Torquay is at a latitude of -38 degrees, which is a bit far north to see aurorae, but not out of the question. But looking south from that location, the nearest land is Tasmania, a couple of hundred kilometers away. I have a hard time thinking light pollution from there would cause that glow.

This has me thinking once again about raw photography versus enhancing an image. Every picture you see, ever, is affected in some way by the lens, the camera, the processing done after. Nothing is exactly as your eye sees it. If someone fiddles with an image but doesnât change the actual content to the point where itâs no longer faithfully representing whatâs seen, then Iâm OK with it. Iâm even fine if they do as long as they say so up front and donât try to pass it off as ârealâ (whatever that might mean).

In this case Brown was clear, and the enhancement does add an artistry to the original that I rather like (I prefer the color of the sky in the original but the color of the water in the enhanced version, to be honest). It also makes me miss southern skies even more.

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