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Dr David Malin
Submitted: Wednesday, 29th November 2006 by Mike Salway

Dr David Malin is Australia's most recognised professional astrophotographer, working as a photographic scientist-astronomer at the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) for over 25 years.  It was there he developed new image enhancement techniques which won him international acclaim, including the Lennart Nilsson Award in 2000.

Mike talks to David about image processing and over-processing, CCD vs Film, his past and future, and more..

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Dr David Malin

IIS: You were born in England - what brought you to Australia, and when did you arrive here? Did you have a family at the time? How did they feel about moving to Australia?

DM: I married an Australian in England. We lived in a beautiful cottage in rural Cheshire and had three children rather quickly. I was very happy doing optical and electron microscopy and X-ray work in a chemistry research/development laboratory with a big international chemical company. However, there were changes happening within the company that restricted the possibility of advancement. I had been there 18 years so it was time to look for something new.

I saw an advertisment in Nature for a photographic scientist, someone familiar with photography as a scientific tool. It was for a job at the Anglo-Australian Observatory. After a couple of interviews I was surprised to be offered the Job in May 1975. We arrived in Sydney ten weeks later, and thus began a steep learning curve.

The decision to come to Australia was mine. My wife loved our Cheshire house and garden, our oldest child, James, was enrolled in the village school and I had parents and grandparents to think about. But to prospect of the job and challenge it offered was irresistible. I'm glad I did it now, but the first 12 months were tough on everyone. I was suddenly away from home a lot, working very long days (and nights), while we were looking for a house and settling the kids into a new life.

IIS: Have you ever owned a telescope? Do you (or have you) had any interest in visual observing, or has there always been a camera attached to the focuser?

DM: The first telescope I used was the 3.9m Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) and I have never owned one since. I always enjoyed looking at the sky in England, but in the industrial north it was never especially spectacular, mainly because of particulate pollution and stray light, not to mention endless cloud. However, I did make some star trail pictures with a box camera and used binoculars to explore the moon, but I was not an astronomy enthusiast. What motivated me then (and now) were the challenges of scientific imaging.

IIS: When did your interest in photography begin?

DM: In Paris, in 1958. I was 17 and on my first overseas trip. I had borrowed a folding roll film camera and took lots of B & W images – colour was beyond my reach as an impoverished student. When I got back my friends in the lab showed me how to process this stuff and eventually how to print it with the company enlarger. My Paris holiday came to life again as I made my first prints. I was hooked.

I was also discovered, making my own prints in company time. Instead of firing me, I was asked to take some images of crystals with a large optical-bench microscope. This was my introduction to microscopy, and before long I was doing this kind of thing full-time, filling a niche I had not realised existed. My little section soon grew into a 'physical methods' lab, using microscopes of various kinds, both optical and electron, as well as X-ray diffraction equipment, to tackle chemical and applications problems in new ways. This was quite a novelty in the 1960s, and it was quite successful.

The link between all these methods was photography, mainly used as a data collection medium that coincidentally produced pictures.

IIS: What did you know about astronomy and astrophotography before starting work at the AAO?

DM: Not much.

IIS: Has your photography work always been of deep-space objects, or have you ever done photography of objects in our solar system?

DM: The AAT was built to explore the southern sky, by which astronomers mean the galactic and extra-galactic sky. There were telescopes designed for solar system work in the northern hemisphere, and while the planets have been observed occasionally with the AAT, most of the projects were concerned with stars and galaxies – and the occasional comet.

IIS: How have the techniques for photography at the AAO changed from when you started there, to what the current crop of astronomers use now?

DM: The last photographic plates were taken on the AAT in 1999 and on the UK Schmidt Telescope about a year later. Long before then CCDs had been used for imaging and spectroscopy, but it was clear at least a decade earlier that the days of photography were numbered. I was surprised it took so long to die, and I well remember processing the last plates in May 1999, knowing they were to be the last. It was a poignant moment for me, but photography had enjoyed a good run in night-time astronomy, from about 1882.

IIS: What's the best way for an amateur using today's equipment to make contributions to science?

DM: It depends on the skills, equipment and persistence of the observer. I was at a meeting in the USA in November 2006, the Advanced Imaging Conference, where impressive scientific work was being done on very low surface-brightness galactic nebulosity and on the detection of seriously distant supernovae. Much of this was done from domestic comfort in the northern USA using remotely operated telescopes located in New Mexico.

IIS: Is it "easier" to get great images of deep space objects using today's equipment? Do you wish the technology was around when you were working?

DM: It's just different. In professional astronomy, and often in amateur astronomy, equipment and techniques are pushed to their limits. Of course, the technology of photography is totally unlike the business of CCD observing but the aim is the same, to capture every last photon and to make some sense of the message it carries.

IIS: When processing an image, how do you know when to stop? Do you feel we tend to over-process our images these days?

DM: Far too many images are over-processed. It is my constant comment when I'm judging astrophotography competitions. The colours, forms and textures of nature are mostly subtle and delicate, and that must be reflected in images of nature. It is an art-form to be able to construct a deep image of a galaxy, cluster or a nebula in such a way that it looks natural, and the way to learn this is to make B &W images first, retaining the dynamic range and enhancing the detail in such a way that the result looks perfectly natural, without processing artefacts. Once that is mastered, then move on to colour.

IIS: Is there a difference between processing an image for aesthetic appeal, versus what science can be extracted from it?

DM: Yes. Many of the colour images I have made with large telescopes were derived from exposures made for scientific purposes, but these same plates can be manipulated in ways that reveal unexpected data. The end result may not be aesthetically pleasing but it is scientifically useful. Mouseover the images on (for example) NGC5236 and NGC1566 to see combined images.

IIS: Has the ease of CCD imaging signalled the end for film? What are the pros and cons of each approach?

DM: This is a big question. Since you did not specifically mention astroimaging…

I was recently at a reunion of RMIT scientific photography graduates who have been earning a living in photography for five years or so. All were trained in digital and film imaging. Some are not doing scientific photography now but most were still taking pictures for a living. Many said they had reverting to film for it's quality and simplicity, and their method of working is to shoot on transparency film, have it processed professionally and receive proof prints from the lab that they can send to clients. Once the client has selected the shot, the film (or selected frame) is scanned professionally and the photographer works on the image in Photoshop before submitting the final. They say this produces the best quality, especially from 6 x 6cm and larger photographic originals. It also matches my experience of scanning my own non-astro film material.

However, these guys are not often struggling for photons and can usually light their subjects to taste and capture the scene in one shot. For almost all astronomical applications the sensitivity of CCDs is a huge bonus, as is the relative ease with which separate images can be tidies up and combined, both to improve signal-to-noise and in other clever ways such as lRGB.

There are of course many other factors that could be explored here, but basically, the adoption of CCDs in both amateur and pro  astronomy had revolutionised the field and provided opportunities for imaging that were simply not possible using traditional silver-based photography. But for non-scientific, high-end professional work, many still prefer film as the detector and the creative flexibility of working on digital derivatives of them.

IIS: Is there a particular event or discovery that you remember most fondly of your time at the AAO?

DM: I enjoyed finding that very faint shells of stars around elliptical galaxies were commonplace a few months before their existence was predicted by computer models of galaxy mergers.

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1982-2002, Anglo-Australian Observatory/Royal Obs. Edinburgh.
Photograph from UK Schmidt plates by David Malin.

IIS: What do you feel is the best image you've produced?

DM: That's not for me to say. One of the most challenging was the Orion Nebula.  

IIS: How do the digital processing techniques such as "Unsharp Mask" differ from the analogue techniques you developed in the darkroom?

DM: In many subtle ways. In Photoshop, the tool that comes closest to photographic unsharp masking is under Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight. Standard unsharp masking does not affect the distribution of luminance in an image, but Shadow/Highlight does.

IIS: What astrophotographers work do you admire, both from the past and current?

DM: I admired Ainslee Common, who, in 1883 made the first image (of the Orion nebula) that revealed stars not seen before. He showed that photography had a role as a detector of faint light, not merely recording what could be seen. I admired Bill Miller, who made the first good colour astronomical images using the Palomar (now Oschin) Schmidt telescope in the 1960s. There's a whole host of people in the 1980s and 90s who were doing good work, but the bar was raised to new heights by the Hubble Heritage team towards the end of the 1990s. Now many amateur astronomers are producing work I would have been very pleased with 20 years ago, using telescopes much smaller than the AAT. I'm pleased to find that many of them live in Australia. Their success will ensure that the ranks of amateur astronomers will continue to grow.

IIS: Lending your name to the CWAS Astrofest David Malin Awards is a great thrill for those involved and those lucky enough to win. Do you enjoy seeing the work produced by amateurs and semi-professionals? Is the standard of the entries improving each year?

DM: Yes, and yes.

IIS: Is light pollution killing the ability to do really deep astrophotography for both amateurs and professionals? Are the observatories going to have to move further and further away to get the dark skies they need?

DM: In Australia it is relatively easy to find clear, dark skies. It is not so easy in the northern hemisphere. Australian amateurs should make the best of it while they can, before rich, northern hemisphere amateurs locate their remote telescopes in the Andes. Professionals can use telescopes in Chile, on Mauna Kea and La Palma that are largely pollution free and that are above most of the atmosphere. 

IIS: What motivates you? What inspires you? Both professionally and personally.

DM: I enjoy a challenge and I enjoy looking at good images, sometimes my own, more often other people's.  We also have six grandchildren under six. Now that's where a digital camera is very handy (apart from the shutter lag!).

IIS: What keeps you busy these days? Do you miss working at the AAO?

DM: I miss the AAO a lot, and I miss the thrill of observing. On the other hand I don't miss the stress of a busy professional career or the stress of observing. I write a lot, edit hefty works such as the scientific imaging section of a new edition of the Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, due out in 2007. I also do plenty of travelling and lecturing around the world.

IIS: You’re attending IISAC2007 as a guest speaker.. will you also take the opportunity to look through some of the scopes there? When’s the last time you were out observing under dark skies?

DM: I like spending time with amateurs and their telescopes. The last time was at the 2003 Queensland Astrofest at Duckadang. It was in August and the Milky Way was spectacular. I was also on holiday in Hawaii recently. It was dark and I had a pair of reasonable binoculars, so was able to grope my way around the northern sky, which I know much less well than that over Australia. I look forward to some telescope time in the Hunter.

IIS: Thankyou very much for taking the time to talk to IceInSpace.

DM: It's a pleasure.

Interview by Mike Salway (iceman). Discuss this interview on the IceInSpace Forum.

 

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