Deep Sky Stacking Programs for Digital SLR Cameras
A common aproach to astrophotography has become the use of Digital SLR cameras (DSLR). These are relatively cheap, can be used for astronomy and ordinary terrestrial photography, and produce surprisingly good astronomy images so have become quite popular.
There’s a few basic steps required for getting started in DSLR astrophotography. I would summarise them as:
1. Buy a camera
2. Buy a tripod, telescope or other tracking platform
3. Acquire a piece of software to help take long exposure photographs
4. Acquire a piece of software to process (including stack) the photographs you take.
The question often arises from the above of what piece of software to use for stacking and processing the resulting images that you take using your camera. Or, also often the case, people don’t realise that there is software available to make this easy. So here I am going to list a few options, hopefully making it easier for anyone who finds this page.
If you know of programs which are suitable for DSLR astrophotography image processing that are not on this list please let me know, also let me know if information here needs updating. Thank you.
Software suitable for stacking and/or processing astrophotography DSLR images:
This is a fantastic piece of software for aligning and combining individual astrophotographs from digital SLR cameras. It works very efficiently with large files, is amazingly capable in aligning photographs and has quite good stacking algorithms built in as a bonus.
This software is primarily intended for simply the registering (aligning) of frames such that they can be combined. This piece of software is so good that you can combine old film images with new digital images, or digital images from different cameras with differnt focal lengths and all sorts. It will also easily handles field rotation (fixed tripod shots are OK) and pretty much any other distortion.
The two problems I have with this software is that it does not read Canon RAW files, so conversion to some other format such as TIF is required first, and that it does not handle reduction of the images which leaves you needing another piece of software (like PhotoShop) to do that manually first.
Unfortunately excellence comes with a price, and in this case that’s about US$159.
The version of RegiStar that I am familiar with is 1.0, and it hasn’t been updated for some time (2004). This means it’s not up to date with current file types (RAW) but doesn’t detract from it’s excellent ability to align TIF images.
Find RegiStar here: http://www.aurigaimaging.com/
2. Deep Sky Stacker
This is a free and very capable piece of software for aligning, combining and performing post processing of astrophotographs from digital SLR cameras. The best thing about this software is that it’s free, and amazingly capable for something that is free.
This software will read a very wide variety of file formats including Canon RAW format, and process them. I have had some issues with processing canon RAW files so typically choose to first convert the RAW files to TIF before processing. This may simply be a lack of experience on my part, as I do not use this software often.
From my limited experience with Deep Sky Stacker I have found the aligning and combining of images to be quite efficient but the processing of a stacked image to be relatively resource intensive and slow. As a result I quickly settled on using Deep Sky Stacker for the aligning and stacking of frames then saving the file and working with it in PhotoShop instead.
Find Deep Sky Stacker here: http://deepskystacker.free.fr/english/index.html
I cannot say much about ImagePlus as I have not used it for DSLR image processing. However many people do and it comes highly recommended. You can find out plenty of information about it around the web.
Find ImagePlus here: http://www.mlunsold.com/
I primarily use MaximDL for image reduction, as it’s image reduction process is very painless. Provide it with a directory of all your reduction .FIT files and it will nicely sort them in to a database of reduction groups to be applied to any image you open.. Open the .FIT and it will apply the appropriate reduction frames. This is significantly easier than CCDSoft or TheSkyX which require you to do a lot of manual work with reduction frames. The benefits of MaximDL’s reduction frame handling for .FIT files may or may not be transferred to use of DSLR raw files – I have not tried reduction of DSLR images in Maxim.
MaximDL’ stacking seems fair however I haven’t had need to switch to using it over CCDSoft for alignment and stacking. I also haven’t tried MaximDL for large images such as DSLR, with the largest I typically use in Maxim being those from my SBIG ST8-XME.
Find MaximDSLR here: http://www.cyanogen.com/products/maxdslr_main.htm
CCDStacker is one of a suit of products made by CCDWare aligned to advanced usage of telescopes. I find their product range very interesting but haven’t had the opportunity to test their software yet. Some advanced users prefer CCDStack to DeepSkyStacker because it is more advanced, and some prefer CCDStack over PixInsight because CCDStack is more user friendly, resulting in a less steep learning curve.
Find CCDStacker here: http://www.ccdware.com/products/ccdstack/
PixInsight is another advanced astrophotography image processing piece of software. I now have some experience using PixInsight for processing CCD images from an SBIG ST8-XME camera and can certainly see the potential of the software.
PixInsight operates in a very different way to other software. They even seem to put buttons on dialogue boxes around the opposite way to what is most common just to confuse the user. The difference in how processing is done and the user interface in PixInsight makes the learning curve very steep and troubling at first. There are video tutorials online which are almost essential for getting an understanding of how to use the software before you lose your hair trying, but once concerned it is proving to be very powerful.
Some functions of PixInsight which are particularly useful so far to myself is the DBE (Dynamic Background Extraction) used for flattening the background brightness (removing vignetting for example) and the tools for colour combining.
There is no doubt to my knowledge that PixInsight is the most advanced piece of software for stacking astrophotography deep sky images. It’s set of processes and plugins is both extensive and powerful. The catch is only in it’s usability and how patient you must be to work through its steep learning curve to achieve good results.
How PixInsight fairs for DSLR photography I am yet to confirm. At this stage DSS is still winning for me largely due to usability. With DSS you upload all your dark frames, light frames and flat frames, then pretty much just press “go”. With PixInsight there are many steps involved to achieve the same outcome, even if the outcome might (unconfirmed) be higher quality.
PixInsight is available as 45 day free trial.
Find PixInsight here: http://www.pixinsight.com/