Deep Sky Astrophotography

If you're willing to devote an entire night — and sometimes multiple nights — to one subject, thousands of objects become viable targets for digital SLR cameras. Results such as this exquisite picture of IC 4604 in Ophiuchus, which represents more than eight hours of exposure, can be achieved with these versatile cameras.

Chuck Vaughn

In early 2004 Kodak announced it had stopped producing Technical Pan 2415 black-and-white film, widely regarded as the best film for astrophotography. Many of us were left with a choice — either stockpile whatever rolls of Tech Pan we could find, or make the transition into the digital age. At the time I wasn’t ready to invest large sums of money on a CCD camera and the required accessories. While I mulled over these choices, Canon announced an astrophotography version of their popular EOS 20D digital SLR camera. After much contemplation, I decided that this EOS 20Da (S&T: November 2005, page 84) was the best choice for me, and I have never looked back. The EOS 20Da was affordable and required virtually no modifications to my existing equipment. Only a T-adapter was necessary to continue my photographic endeavors, along with two computer programs to calibrate and combine the RAW format images produced by the camera.

Deep Sky Astrophotography: Getting Started with Digital

After initial tests with the EOS 20Da, I replaced the camera’s internal infrared-blocking filter with a Hutech Type 1 filter to improve its sensitivity to hydrogen-alpha light. Also, just like my experience with film astrophotography, I found that the longer the total exposure time with the digital camera,
the better the final image. I consider 3 hours to be my minimum duration per subject when imaging under dark skies. As with cooled CCD cameras, creating long cumulative exposures is best done with many shorter ones combined; due to the greater sensitivity of digital sensors, they reach the skyfog limit far quicker than film.

Digital single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras advanced so much in recent years that the quality of astrophotos captured with them now exceeds what was possible using film. Using a Hutech-modified Canon EOS 20Da, the author combines dozens of 10-minute expsosures recorded at ISO 800 to create ethereal masterpieces such as this portrait of Van den Bergh 142, port of the larger nebula complex IC 1396 in Cepheus with 420 minutes of exposure.

Chuck Vaughn

From my location, I’ve standardized my exposure length to 10 minutes per frame at ISO 800. Lower ISO values cause undesirable posterization (visible steps between brightness levels) in the faintest areas of my images, and I don’t see much advantage to ISO 1600, with its decreased dynamic range. I save all my images in RAW format, to preserve the entire 12 bits of data produced by the camera. I also turn off the automatic noise reduction and instead record dark exposures (images of the same duration as the light frames, recorded with the camera’s lens covered) at roughly the same ambient temperature so I can calibrate my images later. Of course, accurate guiding of the telescope is a must for any image longer than a few seconds, so I use an old SBIG ST-4 autoguider to ensure
round stars every time.

Processing the Raw Image

I used Adobe Photoshop to process my first images with the 20Da but quickly discovered that it isn’t a very effective tool for performing critical steps such as the calibration of individual frames. Also, the plug-in that was included with the Canon software package for converting RAW images to other formats wasn’t as effective as I had hoped, especially in handling color balance. So I purchased the
program ImagesPlus (reviewed in the July 2006 issue, page 82), which was specifically created to convert, calibrate, and process digital SLR camera files. (Cyanogen’s MaxDSLR performs many of the same functions.) I now use ImagesPlus for RAW file conversion, dark- and flat-field calibration, and combining the individual images.

I try to record at least as many dark frames per night as light frames and then combine them using ImagesPlus to create a master dark frame, which averages any temperature changes and cosmic-ray hits in the individual darks.

I also use a master bias frame, which is a zero-length exposure that records the inherent electronic signal in every exposure. Bias frames are used when dark frames need to be scaled. While I don’t take new flat-field images every night because my instruments are optically very stable, users of telescopes with moving mirrors that can shift over the course of the night should consider recording new flat-field images each imaging session. Finally, I’m very careful to clean dust off the filter in the camera each night. Shadows from any remaining dust motes I can remove in Photoshop later.

After a night of capturing light exposures and calibration frames, I convert the RAW files to 16-bit FITS format in ImagesPlus using no white balance. In the Calibration Setup menu, I select Auto in the Scale Factors section to compensate for any remaining differences in my darks due to temperature changes. (All digital SLR cameras lack temperature regulation, so differences from one image to the next are inevitable.) Once all the calibration is performed, I align the frames and combine them using Adaptive Addition, which is similar to performing a sum of the exposures with much of the random noise averaged out. With the exception of noise reduction, I do all other processing with Adobe Photoshop.

After the individual frames are calibrated and stacked, the white balance must be adjusted. Using the Levels palette in Adobe Photoshop, Vaughn adjusts the white (right) slider on the green and blue channels to set the white balance of a G2V star similar to our Sun. (Click for larger image.)

Chuck Vaughn

The images from my EOS 20Da are very red because of the wider red passband of the Hutech filter. To compensate for this, the image needs to be white balanced. White balancing simply means that if an image of a gray card is recorded with a camera in RGB format, the individual red, green, and blue channels are adjusted until the image appears gray. The standard technique in astrophotography to
achieve white balance is to photograph a G2V (solar-type) star and adjust the green and blue channels until the star appears white. My G2V test on an overhead star achieved proper white balance when the green channel’s white slider in Photoshop’s Levels palette was set to 133 and the
blue channel’s was set to 126. While other white-balance calibrations can be used, anything other than G2V calibration will change the color balance compared to daylight photos.

The next step is to perform a gamma adjustment. Using the Levels palette, I move the center slider until it is just to the right of the primary data within the histogram. This adjustment starts to bring out faint nebulae and galaxies without saturating the already-bright stars in the image.

Establishing a neutral sky background is an important step in all image processing. Set the Color Selection tool to 5 X 5 average and place it on a region in the background where no faint stars, nebulosity, or galaxy detail is apparent. Image adjustments can be monitored in the Window > Show Info drop-down menu. Using the Levels palette black (left) slider, adjust the black point until the red, green, and blue channels are equalized, but don't make the background completely dark at this stage. (Click for larger image.)

Chuck Vaughn

After the gamma adjustment, I now adjust the sky background. It’s necessary to find an area of neutral sky in the image that’s free of any faint detail I wish to preserve in the final image. Images of nebulae that permeate the entire field can sometimes complicate this step. To monitor any changes I perform on the background, I first open the drop-down menu Window > Show Info (which displays
the pixel values of the point under my cursor) and set it to display both RGB and Grayscale readings. I also select the Color Sampler tool and change the sample size from point sample to 5 × 5 average. I then click on the image in my chosen neutral area, open the Levels palette, and adjust the black (left) sliders of the green and blue channels until they equal the red levels.

Approaching the Curve

Now comes the first really subjective part of my processing. It’s obvious that much of the information I wish to display resides in a small area of the histogram near the faint end. Using the Curves function, I perform the equivalent of a hyperbolic arc-sine adjustment based on the image data. I first open the Histogram palette and determine the values that are slightly darker and lighter than the bulk of the histogram data. I then apply a steep linear slope to the curve between these levels. I use a
gentler slope for the curve above and below this mountain of data, which prevents the faintest data from being clipped to black and the brightest highlights from clipping to white.

Using the Curves palette, you can now stretch the image, though carefully monitoring of the white and black points is still required to avoid clipping the ends of the histogram. Often more than one application of the Curves function is necessary to achieve satisfactory results. This particular image required the two curves presented above, plus one additional, though less aggressive, application of the function to establish the proper contrast throughout the image. (Click for larger image.)

Chuck Vaughn

While this adjustment improves the image greatly, my subject still appears faint, and the background is still too bright. I need to apply at least one additional curve to increase the contrast. I open the Curves palette again and place additional points to hold the linear part of my curve straight while simultaneously keeping the shadows and highlights from clipping. Exactly how I adjust this curve depends on what it’s doing to the image on the screen — I try to achieve good contrast in the object, a dark gray sky, and highlights that are not burned out. I may try several curves until I find one to my liking.

One rule I apply to all my images during processing is that objects must fade into the background sky rather than have razor-sharp cutoffs. It’s okay for regions of the subject to be faint. Typically I leave the sky background in the range of 20 to 30 out of the 255 levels displayed in the Histogram window. Another, weaker Curves adjustment might be necessary to achieve the desired effect.

Finishing Touches

My experience with my modified Canon EOS 20Da shows that it is necessary to increase the color saturation in Photoshop by +20 for daylight images, so I automatically apply this adjustment to all my astrophotographs. Next I perform a final color balance for the sky background. I examine a few areas of blank sky (if available) and use the Levels palette to neutralize them.

After sharpening and noise reduction, the final image should appear smooth but not quite noise free. This view of IC 5070, the Pelican Nebula, combines 24 five-minute exposures recorded with an Astro-Physics 155EDF (6.1 inch) refractor operating at f/6.

Kristina Grifantini

At this point I apply any sharpening I think will be beneficial. While there are many different ways to sharpen an image, mostly I prefer to use the Lasso tool with some feathering to select an area I wish
to sharpen, and then apply the Unsharp Mask filter with a radius of 1 to 2 pixels. I rarely, if ever, sharpen the entire image.

My final step is to minimize noise, which shows up in virtually every astrophotograph. Here again we are fortunate to have many choices, though I prefer Noise Ninja. It’s easy to use and does a good job. Although the program works on RGB images, I find I can achieve better results by splitting the red, green, and blue channels in Photoshop, saving them as individual grayscale images, then using Noise Ninja to perform luminance noise reduction on each channel separately. I feel this gives me better control.

Some imagers try to achieve the smoothest possible result. Human eyes are accustomed to seeing detail in everything down to the limit of our visual resolution, but much of the time that “detail” is noise where our brains fill in the blanks. The trick is to have just the right amount of noise. Too little makes the image look plastic, and too much distracts from the subject, so I attempt to process my images to achieve a smooth — but not completely noise-free — result.

Unfortunately, the 20Da is no longer manufactured, but similar results can be obtained with other modified cameras. Regardless of which digital SLR camera you choose for astrophotography, these
processing steps will help you get the most out of your equipment. DSLR astrophotography has come of age!

Chuck Vaughn has been photographing the universe from the Northern California mountains for nearly 20 years.


You must be logged in to post a comment.