I have recently installed the Astro Photography Tool camera control software on my dedicated astrophotography laptop. From my very first imaging sequence, I knew I was going to like this application.
There is no better way to learn a new imaging application than to put it to use for a night of deep-sky imaging. With a clear night ahead of me, I dive into Astro Photography Tool to plan my Whale Galaxy astrophotography project.
In the video below, I also discuss my ongoing transition from a DSLR camera to a cooled CMOS camera. The process of controlling a dedicated astronomy camera like the ZWO ASI071MC Cool is much different than a DSLR camera.
I feel confident investing time learning a new software application that is flexible enough to accommodate future upgrades I make to my camera equipment. The regular updates and support groups dedicated to this software are a reassuring sign.
Update: I created a new Astro Photography Tool Tutorial Video in 2019
Astro Photography Tool (APT)
APT supports a wide variety of astrophotography cameras including Canon EOS, Nikon, and CCD or CMOS astronomy cameras such as the Starlight Xpress SX-42. The software allows you to control focus, framing, plate-solving, scheduling, and much more. The user interface is not overwhelming, which is rare in the world of astrophotography software.
Since it’s release in 2009, the developer has constantly improved and refined the software based on the real-life experiences from backyard imagers. Astro Photography Tool currently works on Windows operating systems (XP, Vista, 7, 8, 8.1, and 10). There is an unlimited demo version of APT available on their website so you can try it out for yourself.
In this early review, I’ll talk about why APT is now my primary image acquisition and automation software. After a long run using BackyardEOS, I have progressed to a camera control software that allows me to run both my DSLR camera and a CCD camera (or dedicated CMOS astronomy camera).
After spending 2 amazing clear nights with it, I am extremely satisfied with APT’s intuitive user experience and helpful tools. This program allows you to spend more time gathering light on your deep-sky object, and less time staring at a computer screen.
A User-Friendly Approach
I managed to successfully shoot light frames, dark frames, bias frames, and flat frames my very first night using APT.
This is more than I can say about my first run with Sequence Generator Pro! SGP is a fantastic astrophotography tool, but I find APT to be a better fit for my needs.
As I continue to learn how to get the most of my image control software, I will dive into some of the more advanced features. Features such as PointCraft and the Collimation aid (for my reflector) have gone unused thus far.
Click on the image below for a larger, uncropped version:
You can read more about my experiences photographing the Whale Galaxy, including the complete photography details here: NGC 4631 – The Whale Galaxy
Astro Photography Tool Review
APT is the third image acquisition software I’ve used in the past 4 months. My first camera control software experience was BackyardEOS. Then, Sequence Generator Pro came into the picture due to my need for CCD image control. Finally, Astro Photography Tool has graced my imaging laptop screen, and I am happy to report that it appears as though I saved the best for last.
Astro Photography Tool reminds me a lot of BackyardEOS, and I don’t just mean the snazzy red interface. In my opinion, the user interface is much more friendly for beginners than SGP was.
Fans of BackyardEOS will enjoy a similar feeling and user experience using APT.
The Author of APT actually launched the software before BYE. So you might say that the APT had a role in inspiring future astro imaging tools. This software application has a loyal following of users, no doubt a result of the excellent customer service offered by the author.
The fact that I jumped straight from Sequence Generator Pro to APT between imaging sessions gave me a direct head-to-head comparison. APT calls itself the “Swiss army knife” of Astro imaging sessions. It offers extensive support to a wide variety of cameras including brands like Altair, Canon, QHY, Atik, Orion and more. I run this software on my Windows 7 laptop.
The software boasts native support for SBIG and SBIG cameras, with ASCOM support for all other compatible cameras, filter wheels, focusers, and telescopes.
One feature I appreciated right away, was the detailed tooltip popup windows. Literally, every button has an associated tooltip indicating what the button does, and when to use it.
APT also presents helpful reminders at critical stages of your imaging session, such as “remember to cover the telescope”, before you run a series of darks. The developer clearly had the backyard astrophotography in mind when designing this software.
Once you have a good understanding of the interface, you can easily turn off the tooltips by clicking the “i” button on the top right of the screen.
Why Astrophotographers use Camera Control Software
On the most basic level, astrophotography imaging software is used to control your DSLR or CCD camera. The application connects directly to your camera and provides an advanced interface to automate the exposure sequences.
My first experience using dedicated software for deep sky imaging was BackyardEOS. Making the jump from Canon EOS Utilities to BYEOS for camera control was an eye-opener. Not only could I run a series of events, but it had astrophotography specific tools for focusing and framing my object, and a lot more.
This completely changed the way I approached deep-sky astrophotography. The old days of using Canon EOS Utilities or a remote shutter release cable are long gone. Applications like APT will make you a better photographer, by structuring your image events.
Camera control software lets you maximize the amount of light you collect on a clear night.
A Better Imaging Experience
All of the applications I have used for controlling my camera have had one thing in common; they make life easier. The tools built into the software help me spend less time getting set up, and more time collecting photons. The following list of benefits is true of all imaging control software:
- controlling your camera
- framing your target
- focusing your telescope
- monitoring your images
- automatic dithering
Plate solving is the act of using the software in conjunction with your equatorial mount to improve the pointing accuracy of your telescope. This has several benefits over performing a manual 3-star alignment, such as a much more accurate way of aligning your deep-sky object for astrophotography.
It involves analyzing an image (taken with your camera) to detect and identify the known stars. If the plate has been successfully solved, the software can then calculate the RA and DEC of the image. This also transfers useful information to the user such as image orientation and resolution.
The PointCraft feature of APT is powered by existing plate-solving technology that was previously only available in professional observatories. There are two types of plate solving using APT: Near and blind.
The “Near” method needs to know the approximate location of where you are currently pointed in the night sky, and “blind” will discover this information for you. Once PointCraft has successfully solved your image, you can then synchronize the telescope coordinates with your image coordinates.
To get started using the PointCraft feature in Astro Photography Tool, you’ll need to download an external plate-solving application, such as PlateSolve2 by PlaneWave instruments (this is the one I use). You’ll also need to unpack the required UCAC3 catalog.
For complete step-by-step instructions of the process, you should read the APT User Guide PDF.
CCD Flats Aid
Astro Photography Tool includes a handy feature for those looking to capture flat frames to correct uneven field illumination in their images. The feature is called CCD Flats Aid, and runs your camera through a series of exposure lengths to determine to best possible setting for a useful flat calibration frame.
You simply need to choose the desired target ADU (brightness value) for the exposure, and the software will test various exposure lengths to find this value. In the case of my ZWO ASI294MC Pro camera, the target ADU I prefer to use is 25,000.
As you can see in the image below, the exposure length required to hit this ADU happened to be 0.28937 seconds. The perfect exposure length to use depends on many factors, including the filter you’re using, and the brightness of your light source.
Using the CCD Flats Aid wizard in APT to capture flat frames.
To create an evenly illuminated field, I use a flat field panel. The Artesky Flat Field Generator includes a built-in voltmeter that displays the current-voltage, and thus brightness of the panel. This way, I can achieve consistent, reproducible results for my next project.
An impressive exclusive feature to APT is the Bahtinov Aid. This uses the Bahtinov Grabber technology to further improve the precision of your focus using a Bahtinov mask.
If you’d like to see how I use APT for star alignment, and focus using a Bahtinov mask, feel free to watch the following video where I take you through my deep sky astrophotography process in the backyard.
Using APT with a CCD Camera
Astro Photography tool is a great option for owners of one-shot-color CMOS imaging cameras such as the ZWO ASI071MC-Cool, or the Altair Hypercam 183C. However, newcomers to CCD-style imaging may experience the frustration of not being able to preview the .FIT files created by these cameras.
Luckily, APT automatically creates small .PNG format thumbnail images to accompany each .fit file. These images will come in handy when reviewing your image files to stack. I prefer to have a quick glance at the “APT thumbs” in Adobe Bridge to remove any unwanted pictures. This pre-screens the worst images before loading them into Deep Sky Stacker.
Sensor Temperature and Control
BackyardEOS would give me a readout as to how red-hot the sensor in my Canon T3i would get. In the summer months, the sensor would rise to above 30 degrees using ISO 800 or above. Running a DSLR in warm weather without any cooling can create a lot of noise in your astro image.
The noise was reduced by shooting dark frames, but noise removal was still a time-consuming stage of my image processing workflow. However, since I started using the ZWO ASI071MC-Cool, thermal noise is a thing of the past.
Astro Photography Tool includes a function called Cooling Aid, that assists you in controlling the temperature of your CCD Camera. The tooltips of this function taught me a valuable lesson about cooling a CCD camera.
It suggested to slowly drop the temperature of the cooler in 3-degree intervals – over a period of 4-5 minutes. This prevents thermal shock to the camera, and I had no idea about this issue until using the cooling aid in APT!
In my case, I set the target temperature for the ASI071 to -20 degrees C. Not only does this level of control result in noise-free images but it also confirms that the dark frames I shoot are the exact same temperature. Shooting dark frames in Astro Photography Tool is very straight forward.
APT vs. SGP
Before I compare these two image capture applications, I should mention, that Sequence Generator Pro was designed with the goal of complete automation in mind. This includes having a permanent setup including astrophotography mount on a pier, in a roofed observatory.
Perhaps if I was at this level, I would appreciate the features of SGP more. Many of the advanced options within SGP went unused during my 45-day trial. This includes plate solving, mount control, focus control and a lot more. I do appreciate that SGP offers a free “Lite” version that continues to provide camera control and automatic dithering.
I am a more basic user, who sets up all of my astrophotography equipment each night. I spend a lot of time outside next to my gear, not in a warm room or in the house.
Sequence Generator Pro
What I really liked about Sequence Generator Pro, was the Equipment Profile Manager. Here, I was able to input my unique gear including camera and autoguiding preferences. SGP would save all of the information for a quick setup the next time I was out imaging.
I also enjoyed the Flats wizard, once I learned how to use it properly. The learning curve was due to my lack of CCD experience in general, rather than the process of taking flat frames. Once I discovered that each camera has a target ADU for a successful flat frame, I was able to use the wizard to produce the right flats for the ASI071 through my telescope.
I found Sequence Generator Pro a bit daunting to use at first. I think that advanced imagers can have a hard time viewing software through the eyes of a beginner, as I know I have been guilty of excluding information about my workflow.
Astro Photography Tool
At this point, I have only used APT for its most basic operations including running my exposure sequences and camera cooling. The biggest difference I noticed when using this program was the overall ease of use and simplicity for my needs.
I was able to spend minimal time adjusting settings, and get up and running right out of the gate. Perhaps I got nostalgic about BackyardEOS and felt like this was the best CCD alternative.
APT is much more affordable than SGP, at $20US compared to $99US. For my personal style and imaging goals, Astro Photography Tool will likely be my imaging control software of choice for years to come! To see where APT fits into my deep sky astrophotography workflow, have a look at my step-by-step process.
Which DSLR cameras can you use with Astro Photography Tool?
Astro Photography Too currently supports Canon EOS, and Nikon DSLR cameras. Unfortunately, because of the non-tethering nature of the API in Sony DSLR’s, software like APT or SGP do not have plans of supporting those cameras. The APT forum is the best place to go for specific questions about camera compatibility.