Posts Tagged ‘Stellarium’

Astrophotography Workflow

12 October 2017

Since the last time I blogged about my astrophotography tools things have changed somewhat. I thought I would write up my current workflow, without making it as much an app tutorial as I did last time.

For starters, I no longer use The Photographer’s Ephemeris. Ever since it moved to online only, it’s been pretty much useless to me in the field. It was a great program, and still is, for laying out sight lines, times, and such. Unfortunately, with it being online only, I can’t use it in the field to work out things.

I pretty much rely now on two phone apps and a computer program:

Stellarium: In the field on a laptop or at home, this is my favorite planetarium program. It lets me see what the sky might show on any location, date and time, and conversely allows me to see when a particular sky object might be where I want it for a photograph. Plus it’s great for finding your way around the night sky on site.

Dioptra: An Android only app, it illustrates the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” With it, I can record in one image the desired view from that location, the actual GPS coordinates, and the compass bearing of the view. It records a few other details as well, but those are the ones I focus on.

Sun Surveyor: Available for both Apple and Android, I use this mostly on-site. Its Live View allows me to see the paths of the Milky Way, sun, and moon through the sky superimposed on that location. It’s useful in allowing me to get everything aligned on that spot and ready to take pictures before dark.

Yesterday, I went into the Owyhees with the goal of scouting a location. As can be seen later, the location doesn’t align for the planned photo shoot any time soon but using Stellarium I was able to identify a different possibility that I could take advantage of.

What I list below is pretty much my usual workflow.

Generally, I start out with an idea, which for some reason seems to tend towards shooting from in a canyon to frame the Milky Way or a planet or constellation between canyon walls. This time, I was thinking “Milky Way above Succor Creek.” I know the Succor Creek picnic area is in a narrow canyon (see what I mean?) and there is a bridge that crosses over the creek there. So, off I go into the Owyhees.

A cowboy, in baseball cap, chaps, jeans, jacket, on a brown horse herding three cows and a couple calves under a mostly white cloudy sky alongside the dirt road in the Owyhees.

A working cowboy herding cattle in the Owyhees.

After a relaxing drive, I arrive at the site. I take my camera bag out on the bridge, and position myself centered over Succor Creek. After first turning on the GPS, I pull up the Dioptra app. Once it’s open and I verify I have a GPS lock I wave my phone around in the classic 3 figure 8s to calibrate the compass.

Hmmm. Just had a mental picture of me in a hooded cloak, mystically waving my arms to summon Magnetic and command him to calibrate my compass.


The next step is to simply point the phone camera for the view I want and take a picture. The app then records that view overlaid with all the necessary “notes” I need to work with Stellarium.

A view up a creek with heavy growth of small trees, brush, and grass on both sides. In the far distance a butte sticks up from the horizon visible between the brush, aligned with the center of the creek. Partially white cloudy sky, mostly blue sky. Superimposed is various information from the Dioptra app like a heads-up display.

The output of Dioptra at the bridge over Succor Creek, Owyhees, Malheur County, Oregon.

While it’s hard to see, in the center of the image is a reticle that gives you an aiming point. I usually only use that for direction alignment on some landscape feature that I might want in the end image. Under that is a compass bearing, in this case 138° which is the direction of interest, straight up Succor Creek. Luckily for me, that distant butte is in line with the creek. In the upper left is the latitude, longitude, and altitude of that spot on the bridge. At the bottom is the compass direction. The two angles on the side are useful for getting the camera perfectly level but in this situation I don’t really care about those.

As you can see, one of the current issues with Dioptra is the use of white text and no way to change that. Hopefully, the programmer will be adding an option to change the text color in the future, but for now there are some workarounds. For example, you can change the camera angle to put the text onto a darker background and take a second picture. Or put your hand over the lens. That gives you the first picture showing you the planned view orientation and a second picture that ensures you get all the necessary information.

Similar to previous Dioptra image, but from the middle of a dirt road. Back half of a blue-green blazer visible to left, steep redish brown cliffs to either side of road.

Another Dioptra image, this time on the road to Succor Creek. Note the better visibility of the information upper left.

This is a Dioptra shot at another location. Notice the center information is almost completely lost in the white cloud but the information top left stands out quite nicely. It’s hard to see, but this straight run of the road lines up on 162°, a bit more towards the south and an alternative which would give me those distant rock fingers reaching to the sky.

My next step is to take a few shots with the camera and lenses I am considering using. In this case, I took an image at each end of two zoom lenses, my fisheye (10-17mm) and my regular 18-55mm. I usually use the fisheye for my astrophotography but it’s useful to try the other lenses as well. Sometimes the framing in a different focal length just works better and if you don’t check that, you won’t know that.

Succor Creek test photo, 17mm focal length.

Succor Creek test photo, 10mm focal length.

Succor Creek test photo, 35mm focal length.

Back at the house, I pull up Stellarium on the computer. Using the location function, I enter the latitude, longitude, and altitude. Next, I move the view to the desired compass bearing. I can also set the field of view to match that of the lens I plan to use but I tend to leave that at the default setting unless it’s a site I use regularly and have a landscape for.

Pulling up the time function and setting it to 2300 tonight, I saw that the Milky Way wouldn’t line up with the creek…at all. It would be coming up over the canyon wall to the right. The 10mm focal length image above does show that I could get a decent shot with the fisheye and still be able to have the creek in the image. The creek wouldn’t be going down the middle of the image, though, if I really want to maximize the Milky Way. That creates a potential line that guides the viewers eye away from the Milky Way.

Not good. At all.

So, now I start clicking on the day in the time function, advancing roughly 24 hours per click. As I watch the screen, I notice the moon goes across the scene regularly. A bit of playing with the time and date shows that I could possibly get a shot of the moon high over the distant butte. The creek would guide the eye to the butte and the butte would point up to the moon. With the right moon, Succor Creek would be a ribbon of silver. That’s a decent possibility.

Advancing day by day again, I come up with a shot that doesn’t have the Milky Way, but does have Orion over the distant butte. Hmmm. That’s another possibility. The moon would be up, but hidden by the left cliff wall. The date says 2017/12/6…December 6th. Depending on the weather, that might be fun.

Stellarium, showing Orion above the butte. Succor Creek would be visible vertically in the lower 1/3 center (as seen in previous pictures).

Finally, I get the northern part of the Milky Way aligned…on 2017/12/27. Not as impressive as the main body of the Milky Way, but a possibility. I really want the center band, though, so I continue advancing…to 2018/06/11. Sigh. All the way to next June before I can get that shot.

Hey, Saturn’s there, too, and pretty much right over the butte!

Imagine the 10mm image of Succor Creek above with the Milky Way over it. Saturn would be directly above the butte.

So, now I have a few dates for images that might work at that Succor Creek bridge location. I know what to expect, where to aim the camera, which lens I will probably use, how early I have to be there, and how late I’ll have to stay. It’s a good opportunity to just go camping, too, knowing I’ll have some neat pictures of the night sky as a result.

If the weather cooperates.


Astronomy and Astrophotography Toolbox Part 2

27 November 2013

As mentioned in my last blog post, this was too long to post as a single article. So, here is the second half, this time focused on the astronomy/astrophotography apps I use on my smartphone.

Before I get into that, though, I’m going to have a little rant. You can read it or you can skip down to after the </rant> about 6 paragraphs down.


I will strongly, vehemently recommend against ever buying your smartphone apps through the Amazon store. The reason is simple: unless you renew your login every few weeks, your app will just stop working, because the Amazon part of that app can’t verify the connection to the Amazon store, therefore you are not the owner of the app and you have no right to use it.

If they just did that stunt after you got it, once or twice, that would be fine. It’s easy enough to make the same check set a flag that indicates it’s been verified or something, but to require me to sign into the store just to run an app I purchased from them? I can understand, as a programmer or businessman, why they’re doing that, but having to renew my creds every three weeks or so to use something I purchased? Seriously?

When I’m up in the hills, I have no connection to WiFi and for many places I go no phone service either. I got that app because I wanted to use it with my astrophotography or astronomy hobby and if it’s not going to work because I haven’t renewed my login with, well, screw that. I’m never getting another app through I don’t have that problem with the Google Play store.

On top of that, the apps at are frequently out of date compared to those at the Google Play store. Comparing my apps with a friend’s, where I got mine through the Play store and he got it through the Amazon store, we found out that I had gotten 3 updates in the six months since purchasing it and he had gotten one. That was for the same app we both got at about the same time.

Do NOT buy your apps at the Amazon store, it’s NOT worth it.

Their other stuff is sometimes priced cheaper than elsewhere and other times higher, same as any other department store. They have a lot of stuff that we can’t get locally, and are reputable. I’ll continue to shop there for everything else, but I will never buy another app through They don’t keep the apps up to date and I never know exactly when I will have to renew my creds. That last means I can’t trust them to work when I want them to. So, like I said, screw the apps on


Ok, what’s coming up next, unless you’re curious and want to see the tools I use, perhaps to see if there’s a tool you hadn’t thought of, can be best summed up as follows:

Now, you Apple fans, move along. Nothing to see here, move along, move along.     **said the author, tongue firmly in cheek**

Obviously I don’t have my laptop with me all the time when I’m outdoors, so I also have various apps on my Android Smartphone. In this case, a Galaxy Nexus. They are all available via the Google Play Store. Many are free, or have a free version (Lite), and one or two you’ll want to pay for. Again, these are what I use and if you don’t like them, perhaps they’ll at least give you some ideas what to look for.

Without further ado, I present the applications I use on my smartphone or tablet for Astronomy and Astrophotgraphy.

I use them mostly as in-field aids to identifying what I’m seeing, but some of them, obviously, can also be used for planning the night’s observations or photography.

Stellarium Mobile:  (Finally!):   It’s not as up to date as the desktop versions and it seems I can’t update the catalogs to include the newest comets, for example, but still worth having, IMHO. Even when I don’t have a particular comet displayed, I can still use it to orient myself and know where to look for it. It’s not as fully functional as the desktop version, as is easily expected, but it does have everything I need to find objects in the sky. I’d like to be able to include my own landscapes, as another example of its limitations, but I can work around the existing landscape. I don’t use this for planning, preferring the laptop one for that, but rather in-field checking on times, places, what’s interesting and in view.

Mobile Observatory:   Tons of useful data, ideas what to look at, etc.. It will tell you what’s available above the horizon at your location, when, where they are in the sky, and gennerally help you find what you’re looking for or identify what you’re looking at. It includes a very nice database that lets you look up information about what you’re interested in. It includes various views of the solar system to play with, a sky view you can set to any date and time, a twilight ephemeris, listings of coming events…way too many features to list here. Highly recommended, I may very well wind up using this on my smartphone as my go-to rather than Stellarium. The Object Database alone is worth having.

SkEye:   I prefer this over Google Sky Map but I find I am using it less and less now that I have Mobile Observatory. It’s a great app that seems much more stable than Google Sky Map and as far as I can tell offers exactly the same as Google Sky Map. It’s great for finding things in the sky or identifying them. Unlike Stellarium, SkEye, like Google Sky Map, gives you a live interface so that you can move your smartphone around and the sky will change according to where you point it. The find feature is wonderful, it points you to which direction you need to move to find what you’re searching for. You do have to move slowly as you zero in on the object, but that’s to be expected. Holding it up and aiming it at the sky is a wonderful way to learn what you’re looking at (is that Jupiter? Oh, it’s Venus!) and your way around the night sky.

Moon Phase Pro:  This is one of those I’m going to replace from Google Play. I like this for seeing what the phase of the moon will be at any given day or time. If I want a particular moon phase, I can touch and drag the moon to that phase and read the time of the next occurrence. Or I can open up the moon calendar and see at a glance the lunar phase for every day of the month, or future months. It also works for past dates, too, if you’re wondering what the moon phase was on some date in the past. This is a planning tool, more than anything else, for identifying dark nights or particular opportunities to photograph lunar features when they will best stand out.

Meteor Showers:  This is a great little app, that gives you the start, peak, and end times of various meteor showers. You can set your location and you can set it up to give you an alert every time a particular meteor shower is nearing its peak. Clicking on on the alert takes you into the program and gives you basic data on the various dates and times, the state of the moon, data about the meteorite speeds, how many meteorites you can expect to see per hour. It also has a built-in search to orient you towards the radiant. It also provides you with sunset for the current day, and a calendar going forward showing all upcoming meteor showers so you can plan which ones you might want to check out.

Lunar Map Lite:   This is a nifty little app that lets you identify places and features on the moon. You can zoom in on places to see the labels so that you can identify it, then zoom out to see the larger overall view that helps you know exactly where you’re looking. It also works in reverse, for example if you’ve been hearing a lot lately about Crater Tycho and want to look at it through your scope or want to take a nice photo of it. Locate it in the app, then zoom out to get your bearings and references. That makes it easy to locate Tycho. I’ve not had this very long, but I find myself using it just to identify what I’m seeing on the moon when I look up at night.

Sat Track:   This is a nice little application useful for all sorts of things. You can set alarms to let you know when satellites are coming into view or to identify a satellite you just saw pass overhead. I use it mostly for Iridium flare and ISS notifications. It will provide you with a rather comprehensive list of satellites, far more than you’re interested in. It includes both ham and commercial satellites. Clicking on any one satellite in the list will bring up detailed information that will allow you to get set up and ready to shoot or observe ahead of time. I like taking pictures of Iridium flares and for this you want to get everything set up then do a time exposure to capture the entire flare from start to end. This app is great for that. It does require a free account set up at Heavens Above.

Satellite AR:   Very identical to Sat Track, I can’t decide which I like better. I hop between the two when I only need one or the other. This app has a different user interface and a live pointer to where a selected satellite currently is, though I don’t make much use of that last part. This app and Sat Track are more prep apps for me, allowing me to set up to capture satellite passes.

GPS Status:   This is my primary GPS tool for location data in the field. When I want to know where I am or use the compass, this is the app I go to. The data presented is very basic, easy to read, and gives me what I want at a glance. This is my “coarse” location, good enough for what I want to do. I like, too, that the battery level is right there so that I can notice if my battery is getting low and shut down the GPS before it goes dead.

GPS Averaging:  This is useful when I want more accurate location data, my “fine” location as it were. It is exactly what it says it is, a GPS reader that averages readings over time to narrow down where you most likely are. The longer you run it, the more accurate it is, but of course like any GPS app, it uses battery power. Both this and GPS Status don’t seem to be terribly battery voracious, but they do use the battery more than the other apps. I use this primarily when I want to be able to import a very specific location into Stellarium, Google Earth, Flash Earth, or The Photographer’s Ephemeris, for example, for future planning. Most of the time, GPS Status is good enough, but every once in a while I need a more accurate location. That’s when I turn to this app.

GPS Essentials:   This is an app I just recently acquired. It looks like it could be useful, but I really mostly just use the two above. This is, as much as anything, an app that caught my eye during a regular check of GPS apps to see if there’s anything better than the other two. What drew me to this app is the opportunity to customize my dashboard to show just what information I want, which ironically turned out to be just one or two items more than GPS Status provides by default. That plus the ability to download and use offline various maps with the GPS are the only two items of interest for me in this app, so far. It has quite a few bells and whistles, including a really nice compass and GUI, but other than these two features I really haven’t used it much, yet. As to the map feature, I like it, but generally when I want to use the GPS with a map display, I will turn to my laptop: bigger screen, wider map selection, and the GPS is then driven by the laptop or vehicle rather than phone battery.

Google Sky Map:   To be honest, I no longer use this app. I keep it around out of sentimental reasons, more than anything else, as being the first planetarium app I ever had on my first smartphone. Over various updates, it seems to have become unreliable on my phone and I find I now prefer SkEye. When I first got it, it was just the most awesome sky map ever but now I can’t seem to get a proper view of the sky no matter what. I am including it for the sake of completeness. If you can get it to work properly, it’s a worthy contender to SkEye.

There you have it. This and the previous post list and explain the applications I use on my PC, laptop, tablet, and smartphone for astronomy and astrophotography. I hope these two posts have been useful and also got you to thinking about astronomy and astrophotography. They are wonderful hobbies that get you outside and the night sky is just fascinating.

Astronomy and Astrophotography Toolbox Part 1

20 November 2013

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
     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.