Astrophotography resources include software, plugins, websites and generally great information that can take your skills to the next level. The right software and tools can save you from unnecessary headaches, and help you enjoy the art of astrophotography on new levels.
It is important to maximize your time under the stars and make sure that you give yourself the best chance of successful results. 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.
Before spending your hard-earned 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 “Astro Photography Tool” image acquisition software can help you maximize your imaging time on a clear night. It allows you to automate your astrophotography session by setting a sequence of exposures. It can also control your telescope filter wheel, motorized focuser, and much more.
Below, you will Astrophotography Resources for:
- Image Capture Software
- Image Processing Software
- Photoshop Plugins and Filters
- Planning Your Imaging Session
- Polar Alignment
- Where to Buy Equipment
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 telescope. For more information, visit the “Buying Your First Telescope” page.
The telescope I currently use for most of my Astrophotography images is the Sky-Watcher Esprit 100 Super APO. I have used many different telescopes for astrophotography, but I prefer the imaging performance and consistency of an apochromatic refractor. 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 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. YouTube has been an amazing astrophotography resource for me as well, thanks to incredible channels such as Chuck’s Astrophotography.
The astrophotography setup pictured above 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.
Before I dive into the specific software applications used for controlling your camera and telescope, have a look at the ASCOM initiative and learn how the ASCOM architecture is used in many astronomy-related devices. The INDI Library is another collection of programs designed to control astronomical equipment from filter wheels to observatory domes.
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.
There are many software applications available to control your camera and automate your imaging sessions, including:
Investing in software that allows you to enjoy capturing and processing deep sky images will allow you to focus on why you got started in astrophotography in the first place. The best astrophotography capture software is one that is reliable, easy to use, and supports a wide variety of equipment. Once you have become comfortable with the interface, your imaging sessions will involve less trial-and-error and more exposure time on your subject.
I began using Astro Photography Tool in April 2017. I was looking for an alternative to Sequence Generator Pro to control my CCD astrophotography sessions. I am delighted to say that APT is a fantastic and affordable choice for both CCD and Canon DSLR imagers.
This software offers much more than just camera control, such as plate solving, automatic dithering, and more. Some of my favorite features of Astro Photography Tool are the Cooling Aid, and Flats Aid. I was able to successfully capture Lights, Dars, Bias, and Flats my very first time out with APT.
I use SharpCap for framing my imaging target, and to focus my telescope. SharpCap is responsive and lightweight. I can quickly connect my camera for a near live-view look at my desired area of the night sky.
This software is extremely useful when focusing as well. With a Bahtinov mask attached to the telescope, I can fine-tune the focus of my imaging area using SharpCap.
I also enjoy the Polar Alignment feature in SharpCap. Using my autoguiding camera, SharpCap will plate solve the images allowing me to align the RA Axis of my mount with the North Celestial Pole.
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.
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.
Related Post: 5 Tips for Better PHD Guiding
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.
If you’re interested in the computer I use for controlling my camera and telescope, I’ve written a detailed post about the PC I now use. There are several options available for controlling and automating your astrophotography equipment, but I prefer the convenience and practicality of a laptop computer.
The ZWO ASIair mobile app is installed on my android smartphone and tablet. This is a camera control unit for ASI cameras such as the ASI294MC Pro one-shot-color camera and ASI290MM Mini guide camera. I enjoy the freedom and simplicity of this system as the internal Raspberry pi based computer rides along with my telescope without the need for an external imaging laptop.
The ZWO ASIair mini-computer riding along on top of my primary imaging telescope.
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 detailed tutorial on how to use DeepSkyStacker, you can download my premium image processing guide. Alternatively, you can visit the tutorials section to see DSS in action in a variety of scenarios.
Adobe Photoshop is a very powerful and flexible program for processing all types of photographic 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.
Photoshop Image Processing Tutorial (Video)
Here is an image processing guide for Photoshop that will show you how to turn an unprocessed image into a final astrophoto. The Photoshop actions and plugins used in this tutorial video can be found on this page.
I have put together a premium image processing guide, sharing all of the specific techniques I use in DeepSkyStacker and Adobe Photoshop. This guide is over 100 pages long, and you can download it here.
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.
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!
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 regard 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. If you are looking for example images using a specific telescope or camera, you can use the search function to filter the images based on that particular piece of gear.
Another way to use AstroBin is to get a better idea of how your next project may turn out. For example, you can browse images taken by others to see how large a particular galaxy will be in your telescopes field of view. The advanced equipment details and technical cards included in the Astrobin gallery will provide you with the answers you need.
I currently don’t utilize their paid plan to host images, as I prefer to post my images on this website. However, a service like AstroBin is geared towards astrophotographers, so it’s likely your best choice for hosting an image gallery. The forum, big wall, and image of the day features add an element of competition and comradery to the group. This website can be an incredible source of inspiration.
“The Big Wall” on AstroBin
Why I love Astrobin
The idea of posting one of my images to a gallery where it will be seen by some of the best amateur astrophotographers in the world forces me to step up my game. An image that’s getting posted to Astrobin goes through a long and thorough processing treatment, because I know it will be enjoyed in high resolution from corner to corner.
I gladly pay the yearly membership fee to not only build out a large archive of organized high-resolution images, but support a unique and growing community of amateur astrophotographers.
Modifying your DSLR Camera
If you’re thinking of modifying your existing DSLR camera for astrophotography, you have two options: perform the mod yourself using a tutorial, or sending the camera away to get a professional modification service performed. Unless you are very technical, and are used to taking apart small electronic devices, I would recommend option 2.
Gary Honis has put together a number of videos and tutorials explaining how to modify your DSLR 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).
I was able to successfully modify my Canon Xsi (450D using Gary Honis’ detailed and information YouTube video.
Gary Honis is not the only expert in this field. Hap Griffin also offers this service, as well as many others.
Weather and Sky Data
Amateur astrophotographers check the weather constantly! Clear skies are what we need to accomplish our goals, and depending on where you live, they can be hard to come by.
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.