The value of capturing deep-sky objects on paper

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, May 20, 2011

When I was starting to observe the sky in the mid-1970s, it was pretty common for people to head outside with a pad of paper, some pens and pencils, along with their red flashlights. These days, it seems most people want to simply look from one object to another in quick succession. But there’s value in drawing the objects as you see them in the eyepiece.

Photo credit: David J. Eicher
The most important benefit you’ll get from sketching is the pure observing experience. Sketching makes you observe critically. It’s the finest way to become acquainted with different classes of objects. By sketching them, you’ll see how nebulae differ from galaxies and how open clusters differ from globulars. You won’t “just look.” Instead, you’ll trace out spiral arms and dust lanes in galaxies; discern the distribution of stars in globulars; observe how galactic nuclei differ in size, shape, and brightness; spot central stars in planetary nebulae; and see how delicate nebulosity wraps in and around bright young blue stars. You might even record on paper a supernova in a distant galaxy. By forcing you to observe with a critical eye, sketching will make you a better observer.

And sketching is the only way to capture objects the way you actually see them. Photos capture what the camera “sees” over long exposures and are subject to massive variations in post-exposure Photoshop processing. The dynamic range and faint light sensitivity of the human eye is very different. Don’t sell it short, and take the time to learn about recording what you see on paper. You will be very glad to have your own record of the universe together, captured the way it really appears to you.

Watch my video on deep-sky sketching techniques. (You must be a subscriber to Astronomy, and logged into the website, to access this content.)

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