The Orientation of Astro Photos

By Jo on

When reviewing our footage of the Mercury transit last week, an interesting comment popped up:

It’s the wrong way round.

When we watched the transit on the day, Mercury made first contact at around 5 o’clock on a standard clock face and marched inwards towards a roughly 10 o’clock exit point.

Without giving it much thought, I’d rotated the video so it was now the ‘right’ way round. I meant the right way in that if you could see the transit unaided without irreversibly damaging your eyesight, that is what you would have seen. But does that make it ‘right’, despite being a misrepresentation of our real-life experience of the event? And more importantly, does it matter?

There is no up and down in space, and on that basis there is no right or wrong orientation for an astronomical image. But our brains long for order and pattern and on a very instinctive level it can be difficult to get over the fact that there is no right way.

The ‘this-is-the-way-it-would-be-if-I-could-see-it’ argument is by and large a different version of the ‘North is up’ idea. This is something of an unspoken agreement within certain astrophotography circles and you’ll find many images conform to this style of compass-overlay. Many, but by no means all.

Not these folks

The notion of familiarity is another important force at play, particularly regarding some of the more recognisable deep sky objects. Around 90% of the Horsehead Nebula images in our gallery follow roughly this orientation:

And because I can so clearly see the horse in the image, and because I am so used to seeing it like this, it can be strange when it’s presented another way.

Even on a mass scale, this is pure personal bias. We all have our own expectations of which way round we think things ought to go – and that’s okay.

It’s also okay not to care. There is no right, or wrong, just different ways of seeing. Follow your data.

Different optics in different telescopes will alter your perception of images in different ways – some may show the image upside down, others reverse it, some may do both, or something else entirely. Then you have the orientation of the camera itself, the way in which your software handles image orientation, what you had for dinner the night before… it goes on.

Perhaps a more important consideration than orientation is image composition. One of my favourite parts of astrophotography is the fine line it toes between science and art. Capturing data is a rather scientific process, but processing it requires at least an element of the artistic. So if that edge-on spiral galaxy would make a better image at a slightly steeper angle? There’s no right way round in space.



Do you have a preferred method of locating your images in space? Let us know in the comments.

Back to News