Astrophotography resources include software, plugins, websites and generally great information that can take your skills to the next level. I have listed many of the software applications I use on a daily basis for capturing and processing deep-sky astrophotography images. Some of these programs are free, most are not.
The right software can save you from unnecessary headaches. It is important to maximize your time under the stars and make sure that you give yourself the best chance of successful results.
Before spending any money on software for astrophotography, it is best to research the product. If it is something that can provide value to your processing workflow by saving you time, or help you produce better results, then it is well worth the money.
For example, the BackyardEOS image acquisition software maximizes my time spent controlling my camera in the backyard. It saves me time and creates a much better overall experience than any other method of capturing frames.
Below, you will Astrophotography Resources for:
- Acquisition Software
- Image Processing Software
- Photoshop Plugins and Filters
- Planning Your Imaging Session
First things first
If you are brand new to astronomy and are ready to take your first step towards developing your passion for the night sky, I have put together some simple guidelines to follow when deciding on which telescope to buy. I would not recommend jumping straight into astrophotography without first learning the sky and experiencing what it is like to spend a considerable amount of time outside with your scope. For more information, visit the “Buying Your First Telescope” page.
The telescope I currently use for most of my Astrophotography images is the Explore Scientific ED102 CF Triplet Apo. If you would like to see a complete list of the astrophotography equipment I use for deep-sky imaging, please visit the Equipment Page.
One of the greatest elements of astrophotography is the amazing online community of DSLR imagers willing to help beginners. This is how I learned much of what I know now, and I am happy to assist beginners learn how to photograph the night sky. Join the AstroBackyard community on Facebook.
The astrophotography setup pictured on the left produces sharp wide-field views of the night sky. The 714mm focal length of the Explore Scientific ED102 CF is a versatile distance for both large nebulae and galaxies.
Capturing images outside is just 1 part of the astrophotography process. The work that takes place after your images have been taken is equally important. Having the right tools and software at your disposal will allow you to develop a workflow you are comfortable with.
Choose software that will enhance your overall experience and make you want to get out an image as much as possible. There is a solution for every headache! (Except clouds)
Software for Deep-Sky Astrophotography
These are some of the astrophotography based applications I use on a daily base to capture and process my images. Having the right tools can help you produce better images, and save time during processing. Most of the software I mention below is not free.
With so much time and energy spent capturing those precious light frames, you owe it to yourself to have the opportunity to make your final photo a masterpiece! Personally, I would highly recommend the small investment to greatly improve your astrophotos.
I use BackyardEOS for camera control. It has several handy features that make imaging a more enjoyable experience. For years I used the Canon capture software that came with my DSLR, EOS Utilities. This worked well for me and I was quite happy with it. A few friends of mine talked about how great BackyardEOS was, so I finally decided to upgrade.
What a difference! Backyard EOS was designed for astrophotographers, and as such has numerous tools to assist you in the field. The star focus module (FWHM) and dithering compatibility with PHD guiding would have to be my favorite features.
I also love the interface, and the robust file-naming and description options. The company offers a 30-day trial, so give it a go for yourself.
Own a Nikon DSLR? Try BackyardNIKON.
If you are looking for an alternative to BackyardEOS, and want something that can also handle shooting with CCD Cameras, try APT – Astro Photography Tool.
Love it or hate it, PHD Guiding gets the job done. Unless you are blessed with a high-end astrophotography mount that doesn’t require guiding such as the Paramount MYT, you will likely need an autoguiding system to keep your stars round during a long exposure.
This application communicates with your telescope mount to “lock-on” to a guide star so that your image frames are nice and sharp. Good polar alignment will help, but autoguiding with PHD will make sure that your images are sharp during exposures of 3 minutes or more.
This software is still new to me, but I can see the potential for complete automation of my deep-sky imaging in the backyard. Once I am able to construct an observatory, I will likely control my sessions largely with SGP. I used this software in it’s most basic form during my experiences with the ZWO ASI071MC-Cool camera in March 2017. This software offers a generous 45-day, full featured trial version.
Image Processing Software
DeepSkyStacker is an amazing free program designed for astrophotography. It simplifies the pre-processing steps required to create an astrophoto by automatically registering and stacking your images into one hi-resolution file. This is where you will submit your light frames, dark frames, bias frames, and flat frames that you captured during your imaging session. You can then bring the file it creates into Adobe Photoshop for post-processing.
I use DeepSkyStacker in it’s most basic form. I prefer to organize all of my best light frames in Adobe Bridge (Any RAW format photo viewer will do), and then bring those images into DSS for registering and stacking. This basically means that it will automatically stack all of my images on top of each other, and create a high-resolution .TIF file that I can then process in Adobe Photoshop. For a tutorial on DeepSkyStacker, you can watch my astrophotography processing video, or visit the tutorials section.
Adobe Photoshop is a very powerful and flexible program for processing all types of photography images. The power in Photoshop lies in its ability to stretch your pixel data further. By using adjustment methods such as levels and curves, you can bring out more color and light from your deep-sky object.
There are plenty of other options when it comes to post-processing an astrophotography image (PixInsight for example) – but Photoshop will always be my personal favorite.
Installing Astrophotography Plug-Ins in Photoshop
There are a variety of custom astrophotography plugins available for Adobe Photoshop. They accomplish actions in Photoshop such as noise-reduction, gradient removal, and everything in between.
To install plugins to your copy of Photoshop, you will need to drop the downloaded file into the Plug-Ins folder. The file path should be something like: Program Files > Adobe > Adobe Photoshop > Plug-Ins. This is where the 8BF files such as Gradient Xterminator will need to be placed. Once installed, the new tools will appear under the filter drop-down menu.
This application is an extremely handy resource when organizing and previewing your astrophotography images. I use it as a key part of my current workflow. I have been using Adobe Bridge for astrophotography for several years now. The power of Adobe Bridge is its ability to preview hundreds of raw images files at once. The metadata for each frame is displayed, giving you access to all of the important details including ISO, Exposure length, Color mode and much more.
Adobe Bridge makes it easy to view your entire imaging session at a glance. You can quickly remove frames that include satellite trails or frames with poor tracking.
This might be the single most important purchase you will make in your adventures in astrophotography. Noel Carboni’s astronomy tools action set is a must-have for anyone processing their astronomy photos in Adobe Photoshop.
Some of the actions I regularly run when processing my images are; Enhance DSO and reduce stars, Make stars smaller, and Increase star color. My current processing workflow includes these actions. You can view my video tutorial processing the Rosette Nebula using this action set here.
It might seem strange paying for “actions” that you could probably do yourself in Photoshop. However, this plugin will save you hours and hours of experimentation with proven processing methods for astrophotography.
The Google Nik Collection is a very powerful set of filters and actions for Adobe Photoshop, and it’s completely free! The filter I use most often on my astronomy photos is the “D Fine 2” process. This is a great noise reduction filter that can really make a difference in your images. The color enhancement and sharpening filters are also popular among astrophotographers, although I am still experimenting with these actions myself.
This is another “must-have” for astrophotographers that use Adobe Photoshop. The Gradient Xterminator plugin is especially handy if you capture your images under light-polluted skies. With the click of a button, you can remove horrible gradients and vignetting in your night sky images. Running the Gradient Xterminator filter is one of the first steps I take when processing any of my astrophotos.
HLVG is a plug-u filter for Adobe Photoshop that does a great job of removing the green noise from your images. This plugin was designed by the legendary astrophotographer Rogelio Bernal Andreo. The idea is simple. Since there are no green objects in space (with a few exceptions of course), the green data in your deep-sky image is usually noise. I only use this filter in situations where the green noise is obvious. Try it for yourself, it’s totally free!
Noise is the enemy when it comes to night photography. This free Photoshop plugin does a much better job at reducing noise in your astrophotography images than the built-in filter in Adobe Photoshop.
I use this filter as one of the final steps in my image-processing workflow. The key is to use it sparingly and to remember to sharpen the details in your image after running it.
I used Colormancer Boundary Noise Reduction (Free Version) to help reduce the noise in my image of the Rosette Nebula.
Planning Your Imaging Session
This is free software you will need to install onto your computer. This is probably the most well-known free planetarium software and is straight-forward and simple to use. I also recommend the mobile app version of this software. Stellarium is fantastic because you can customize it to your observing conditions. This includes being able to upload a custom landscape of your location! I plan on uploading a panoramic shot of my backyard in the near future to get an accurate rendition of my observation window.
You can also set options to view deep-sky objects in the same field of view as your telescope, and your camera sensor! No longer will you be surprised to find out that the object you planned on imaging is bigger than your field of view. This goes a long way in regards to the preparation of your imaging session.
AstroBin is a fantastic resource for planning your next imaging target. By researching the results captured by other amateur astrophotographers, you can get a sneak peak into the performance of specific gear. Looking for examples using a specific telescope? Want to know how large a particular galaxy will be in your telescope’s field of view? The advanced equipment details and technical cards included in the Astrobin gallery will provide you with the answers you need.
Modifying your DSLR for Astrophotography
Gary Honis has put together a number of videos and tutorials explaining how to modify your DSRL camera for astrophotography. The act of modifying a DSLR camera involves removing the IR cut filter that blocks certain wavelengths of light produced by deep-sky nebulae. (Particularly the pink-red emission nebulae).
Gary Honis is not the only expert in this field. Hap Griffin also offers this service, as well as many others. However, I was able to successfully modify my Canon Xsi using Gary Honis’ detailed and information YouTube video. For that reason, I can highly recommend his service to anyone looking to mod their Canon DSLR.
Weather and Sky Data
I like to use a combination of tools to get a good prediction of the weather before setting up my gear.
Weather Website Resources
I enjoy using the Clear Outside astronomy app on my Android phone. This app seems to be more accurate than the Clear Sky Chart, based on my own personal experiences. I also prefer the format of low-medium-high cloud cover as opposed to seeing and transparency.
When planning my astrophotography sessions, I use a mix of many weather resources to gauge the conditions I can expect. The app is completely free, offered by First Light Optics.
I hope that you have found these astrophotography resources helpful in your quest to improve your images. I took me years to build this library of software that I use for each and every photo I capture. If you would like to see some of this software in action, have a look at my image-processing tutorials.