Astronomy and Astrophotography Toolbox Part 1

I have talked from time to time about the various astronomical and astrophotography apps and programs I use, so I thought I would gather them all and in the darkness bind them.

Umm, sorry, wrong script. Every time I read or write the phrase, “gather them all” my mind immediately appends “and in the darkness bind them” because I have loved the Lord of the Rings since I was 13. But I digress, so let’s get back on topic.

Originally, I had planned to write one post covering both my PC/laptop and my Android smartphone. That turned out to be such a long post that I decided to split it. This post will cover apps on my PC/laptop and next week I will post the apps I use on my venerable Galaxy Nexus.

The largest part of my work preparing for an astronomy or astrophotography outing takes place on my laptop or PC. I have the same programs on both, which lets me look and plan whenever an idea strikes, whenever I want to plan something, or whenever I’m just curious about a possibility. For example, planning to go out on some future night to a specific location, I want answers to questions such as:

     1) Just where in the sky will the moon be on that date at any particular
        time?
     2) What is the phase of the moon on that date?
     3) Will I be able to get dark skies or will the moon be up all night?
     4) When is sunset? Moonrise? Moonset? Sunrise?
     5) Will the moon be behind me or off to the side for most of the shots I
        want to do that night?
     6) What will be fun to look at that night? When will it rise over the
        horizon? When will it set? Where is it in the sky?

Those are examples of basic questions I have when planning an astrophotography shoot or astronomical outing. I’m sure you can come up with many more questions.

As I said, the largest portion of my time planning, and post production work, takes place on my PC or laptop. So, I’ll start with the applications I use there first.

Stellarium:   This is my favorite program, one that I have used for over 15 years. I love this program for planning, identification in the field, idle speculation, learning, and telescope control. Any time I want to see where something is, when it would be visible, or what the sky will look like from some place or time, this is the first place I look. I love that I can take a panorama of my favorite locations and use them as the view inside the program. This lets me see exactly what the sky would look like from that location at that time. Properly done and aligned, I can even use familiar landscape features to mark where in the sky I need to look for something. This open source program is simply freaking awesome, freaking useful, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s one of the first programs I load onto every new computer.

The Photographer’s Ephemeris:   This requires internet access to Google Maps to function, so it is very much a planning tool rather than an in-field tool. It gives me a view of sunrise, sunset, moonrise, and moonset from any location I choose as well as the various twilight times, etc.. Its graphical interface provides me with a visual indication of what direction and over what landscape features I can expect the sun and moon to travel. It gives me a chance to determine where I have to be when to get a particular shot, and even whether that shot is possible. For example, months before I went on vacation this year I was able to determine that I could get a sunset shot of a lighthouse and at what time of the day I had to be in place ready to shoot. Another example: I am looking for a place to shoot the summer solstice rising over the far rim of a canyon as you look up or down the canyon from down on the canyon floor. Trying various locations on the map that look like they might work, I can use this program to verify if the angle might be right. So far, I haven’t found a suitable location.

Pentax Tether:   Created explicitly for Pentax cameras by a Pentaxian, this is an in-the-field application to control my camera. It allows me to automate camera settings and shooting. With this app I can set and adjust, if necessary, virtually every setting on my Pentax cameras. Just about the only thing I can’t do is zoom. My usual use of this is to set up one camera, perhaps for a time lapse over the night’s shooting session, set up my camera settings, and let it run. It will trigger the shutter and store the photo to the laptop, leaving me free from worry about filling up the camera’s memory card. I do still have to monitor the camera battery, but with proper planning, spare batteries, and practice I  found I can swap out the battery without losing more than one image. I plan to build an external battery setup to enable me to shoot from before sunset to after sunrise on June 21st without having to worry about the battery.

Pentax K10D on a heavy tripod connected to a laptop on top of a camera case on a small table with the moon in the background.

My typical astrophotography setup when I want tight control of the exposure.

SkyStudio Pro:   Another in-the-field time lapse app, I don’t use this very much any more. Since I have Pentax gear, Pentax Tether has become my preferred camera control. I include this for those of you that have other gear but don’t yet have your own camera control application. I found it to work flawlessly with my Pentax even though it’s aimed primarily at the developer’s Canon gear. Before I found Pentax Tether this was my go-to application for time lapses. If you can’t use Pentax Tether or have not yet found a program you like for controlling your camera during time lapses, I recommend checking this out.

RegiStax:   I originally got it because I could see the advantage of stacking, and I have tried using it a couple of times. The interface can be intimidating when you first see it, but there are some great tutorials out there to guide you past this hurdle. I’ve had varying results using this and have gotten some nice pictures out of otherwise mediocre shots. To really develop my skills here, though, I need to get some proper pictures to use with it and spend the time to really learn how to make it work. It works with either stills or video and gives you a huge amount of control over the results.

Pentax Photo Browser / Pentax Photo Lab:  These came with my camera and I use the Photo Browser mostly for viewing and sorting my photos. I use the lab from time to time, mostly with RAW format images. I have tried other photo library programs but keep coming back to the Pentax Photo Browser and the photograph file system I’ve set up on my computers. This is most likely due to familiarity and the huge amount of work it would take to convert to some other photo library program. I really would like to use a photo library with tagging, but the effort and time required to sort, file, tag, etc. just seems too much. If I find a really good alternative, I might just start using it rather than import my existing photos. Feel free to suggest any stand-alone programs in the comments. Windows and Linux only, please, no Apple OS based programs need apply.

Visual GPS:   This is a GPS program that works with my external GPS receiver. It provides a lot of nice features that I like for GPS work, but in this particular case it’s a means to getting a position report for me to be able to return to the same place or do more exploring in, say, Stellarium, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Flash Earth, or Google Earth. It’s also very useful in reverse: finding a spot to photograph from in Flash Earth and using Visual GPS to ensure I’m at the right place when I get there. Most smartphones now have a GPS built in along with the associated applications to provide this data. However, my laptop has an external battery and so can run 10 to 12 hours per charge. In contrast, my phone would quickly go dead if I used it as much as I use Visual GPS.

I also have another GPS program that lets me plot my position on topographic maps on my laptop while driving, useful for back country exploring on numerous unmarked roads or getting to a new site.

Flash Earth via Firefox:    This is a website, rather than a program, and functions in ways very similar to Google Earth. However, in a lot of cases I have been finding that I can zoom in closer and clearer in Flash Earth than I can in Google Earth. It does not have the street view or the angle adjustment that Google Earth has but it’s still a very good planning tool. I use this along with Stellarium to check out camera angles and alternate sites I could quickly move to next time, if desired, or to virtually explore areas of interest where I might want to do some astronomy viewing or astrophotography.

Google Earth:   Like Flash Earth, this is tied to having internet access. I love using Google Earth and Flash Earth to explore and find places from which to do photography, not just astronomy or astrophotography. This is useful for planning how to get to a dark sky site or finding a dark sky site when you’re on vacation. It’s also useful, especially if you have GPS co-ordinates, for checking alternate sites or angles that pop to mind after you’ve returned from an astrophotography session. The street view, as useful as that is, usually isn’t available in the back country, so as often as not I have to guess if the site is going to have the kind of horizon I want.

GIMP:    Those of you following this blog know this is my preferred post-production app for tweaking my photos. It’s every bit as powerful as Adobe Photoshop but is free. I use this for tweaking to eliminate noise, improve color, and generally improve the overall picture. It’s also good for stacking and merging, but RegiStax, once you learn it, is less labor intensive handling the stacking. One thing I really like is the ability to keep the EXIF data with the picture even after the tweaking. I never, ever modify the original photos, I first save them as a copy and work on the copy. That lets me easily recover if I mess up too bad.

Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop:   There’s tons of tutorials for these so I use these two programs mostly to learn how to do stuff then transfer that knowledge into GIMP. I do some post production here as well, but as mentioned I mostly rely on GIMP for that.

There you have it, the main applications I use on my PC/laptop for astronomy and astrophotography. Next week, in Part 2, I’ll provide a look at the applications I use on my smartphone.

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