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Jim Solomon Astrophotography Cookbook

Jim Solomon Astrophotography Cookbook

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Published by: josolaz on Apr 16, 2011
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11/08/2012

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Jim Solomon's Astrophotography Cookbook 
(v0.4, Last Updated: 5/5/05)
http://home.comcast.net/~jimc8ngt/articles/cookbook/
Introduction
I believe my astrophotography technique is now producingresultsthat are at the limit of what's possible with my rather modest equipment. I therefore offer this "How To" guide to other astrophotographers who are attempting to climb the learning curve, and who would like to get the mostout of similar equipment. I hope such folks will find this useful.This is exclusively a "How To" for long-exposure astrophotography of Deep Space Objects (DSOs);i.e., anything requiring a very long, tracked, exposure to adequately capture. This is thereforespecifically NOT a "How To" for planetary photography, mostly because I don't consider myself verygood at it, and also because the technique is so radically different from DSO photography that it needsits own treatment elsewhere. Note also that this document does not delve very deeply into the theoretical underpinnings of digitalastrophotography, or even the "basics" of astrophotography. As such, it is assumed that the reader isalready familiar with and understands the following concepts:
How to couple a camera to a specific telescope.
The need for a mount to "track" the apparent movement of the stars over the duration of theexposure.
The need for many entry-level mounts, and even some high-end mounts, to be "guided" tocorrect, in real time, tiny errors in those mounts' tracking ability.
The need to polar align the mount fairly accurately.
The basic (digital) technique of taking many relatively short sub-exposures, and then
 stacking 
them to yield a much longer effective exposure time.
The need to shoot in "RAW Mode" in your Digital SLR, as opposed to Large/Medium/SmallJPG mode.See some of the excellent Introductions to digital astrophotography available on the 'net for more info.on these topics.The sections below are broken down as follows. First, I give a brief synopsis of myequipment. Thendescribe the three phases of my astrophotography technique in detail; namely, planning,acquisition, and processing.
Definitions
Here are a few terms used throughout this guide, which I define here to make sure we're all inagreement on what they mean:
Frame
(noun) -- synonym for exposure. E.g., if I take 15 exposures at 4min each of my target,I speak of having acquired "15 Light
 Frames
at 4min each".
Frame
(verb) -- the process of centering the target object in the imaging camera.
 
Lights
-- frames taken with the imaging camera through the imaging scope, with the dust cap
off 
. I.e., these are the actual exposures of the target object.
Darks
-- frames taken at the same ISO, exposure time, and temperature as the
 Lights
, but withthe camera's body cap in place. Darks and Offsets are used to mitigate the effects of variousnoise sources in the camera.
Offsets
(aka
Bias
) -- frames taken at the same ISO and temperature as the
 Lights
, but with asshort an exposure time as the camera allows (1/4000'th of a second in the case of the 300D) andwith the camera's body cap in place.
Flats
-- frames taken of an evenly illuminated target, typically the sky just after sundown.These are used to correct for vignetting in the optical path of the imaging scope, and should betaken with the lowest ISO setting the camera allows.
Target
-- the DSO you are setting out to photograph.
Clipping
(aka
Saturating
) -- the act of overloading a digital sensor to the point where it reportsits maximum intensity value. A clipped/saturated frame is one taken with an ISO setting that istoo high; an exposure time that is too long; or both. Clipping causes a loss of information thatcan
never 
be recovered.
Background
Many newcomers to digital astrophotography are confused by the notion of Lights, Darks, Offsets, andFlats, so here I'll give a very brief background on these concepts. The CMOS or CCD imaging chip inmost Digital SLRS will very faithfully and linearly collect light from the object you're trying to image.Unfortunately, the "signal" collected from the target object will get degraded by thermal noise andother noise sources. Darks and Offsets are the means by which we try to characterize and mitigate theeffects of these noise sources. Also, the telescope/lens optical train may not fully illuminate theimaging chip, depending on its size, resulting in a phenomenon called
vignetting 
. Flats are the means by which we try to characterize and mitigate the effects of this vignetting, and further the means bywhich we mitigate the effects of dust that might have settled on the imaging chip in the camera.The formula that relates these physical phenomenon, and the actual frames we'll collect over a night of imaging, are as follows:
(1)
Light = (Signal * Flat Signal) + Dark + Offset
where
Signal
is the image of the target object we
wish
we could collect under ideal circumstances,and
Light
is the image we
actually
captured. Rearranging the terms, we have:
(2)
Signal = (Light - Dark - Offset) / Flat Signal
But realize that the Flats we capture with the camera will, in turn, be "polluted" by Darks and Offsetsin their own right, and so we must subtract Flat Darks and Flat Offsets from the Flat Lights as follows:
(3)
Flat Signal = Flat Light - Flat Dark - Flat Offset
So, plugging equation (3) into equation (2), yields the final result:
Light - Dark - Offset
(4)
Signal = ------------------------------------Flat Light - Flat Dark - Flat Offset
Thus, the basic digital astrophotography technique involves capturing
all 
of the frame types listed onthe right-hand side of Equation 4, and using them in an image-processing program to produce the"Signal" term on the left. This process of subtracting Darks and Offsets, and dividing by Flats, is called
 
"calibration" of the Lights. Note, finally, that a Dark as captured in an exposure actually
contains
theOffset, and, so, in processing, we will often just subtract this Dark from the Light, without
explicitly
subracting an Offset. But, as stated, that
captured 
Dark actually
contains
the Offset, and subtractingthat captured Dark has the effect of removing the Offset as well.
Equipment
Almost all of my DSO astrophotos (from herein I'll drop the adjective "DSO", since this
entire
document deals with DSOs) are acquired with a Canon Digital Rebel at Prime Focus of my Celestron8" f/5 Newtonian. Here's the list of equipment that comes into play in this configuration:Cameras:Imaging: CanonDigital Rebel(aka 300D) Digital SLR Guiding: PhilipsToUcam Pro II 840k webcamMount:CelestronAdvanced Series with GoTo(aka AS-GT)Telescopes:Imaging: CelestronC8-N: 8" f/5 Newtonian Reflector, fl=1000mm=> upgraded focuser to JMI NGF DX3low-profile modelGuiding: OrionST80: 80mm f/5 Achromatic Refractor, fl=400mmGuide scope mounting:Orion07381Guide Scope Rings (pair), 105mm I.D.Orion07382Guide Scope Ring Mounting Bar Adapters, filters, etc:T-Ring: Orion05224for Canon EOS camerasComa Corrector: Baader MPCCBarlow: Celestron "Kit" 2x Barlow (used with Guide Scope)Extension: Orion051231.25" Extension Tube (to reach focus with webcam)Computers:Guiding, Focusing, and Acquisition: Toshiba TECRA 8100 laptopProcessing: Custom built PC with 3GHz P4, 2GB RAM, and WinXP ProSoftware:Guiding:GuideDogv1.0.6Focus and Acquisition:DSLRfocusv2.7.1EXIF Preview et. al.: CanonFileViewer UtilityProcessing:IRISv4.34,Photoshopv6.0 Cables:Webcam to Laptop: USB cable that comes attached to webcamDSLR to Laptop: 
Long exposure control:C300P-20Parallel port to shutter control cable 
Focus and framing: USB cable that comes with 300DLaptop to Mount: Serial port to AS-GT Hand Controller RJ-22 port,home builtcablePower Supplies:Mount: Celestron18773A/C Adapter (
Warning!
Celestron says
not
to use this!)DSLR: CanonACK-E2A/C Adapter Kit for Digital RebelLaptop: included A/C Adapter 

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