Astronomy has many unfair advantages over the other natural sciences because it captures elements of travel, adventure and discovery. One glimpse through eyepiece filled with thousands of previously unseen stars has lured many casual observers into a head-over-heels love affair with the night sky that remains with them for the rest of their life. The dazzling images reproduced in magazines, books and movies also plant dreams of taking similar images in the minds of more than a few would-be astronomers, too! However, producing astronomical imagery is not for the feint hearted. It involves patience, perseverance and until very recently, a measure of luck. Much of that has changed with the introduction of computerized telescopes and affordable digital cameras. This year has also seen a small explosion of books and DVD tutorials that explain how to transform raw deep space images into picture postcards of the Universe!
This discussion is the first of a series that will examine several of the new books and DVD’s that teach the art of astrophotography. Yes, it is an art form, a method of self-expression. Instead of paint, chalk, pencils and paper or canvas the astro-photographer uses photons captured with a digital camera, a PC monitor, a mouse and any number of widely available applications that enable these 21st century artists to paint images of deep space objects with ancient starlight.
Our first review will start with a new multi-volume series of DVD’s produced by Adam Block who is arguably the world’s most published astrophotographer. For almost a decade, he led the nightly Advanced Observing Program at the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center, outside Tucson. People would stay up all night at his side taking images of the sky through a twenty-inch telescope that Adam would then turn into a stunning photograph. During his tenure, Adam produced almost 1,500 beautiful images with the assistance of his guests that ranged from familiar deep sky objects to those that are seldom seen.
Volume 1 of the series (“Making Every Pixel Count”) is called is called Photoshop CCD Image Processing. As the title suggests, it is a thorough discussion and hands on demonstration of Adobe Photoshop, one of the most powerful image processing tools and the favorite of both professional and amateur astrophotographers. The disk is not designed to explain the use of the application for enhancing your vacation pictures or those of your family, friends or relatives. It is specifically oriented to explain how each of Photoshop’s tools can help produce the best looking picture of deep space objects obtained with a telescope and digital camera.
Over 3.5 hours of instruction are presented. It is organized into twelve separate chapters with each one averaging between 15-20 minutes in length. At the end of each section there is a short review of the chapter’s material accompanied by a selection of beautiful music. The disk is designed for playback on a PC with one of the recent Windows operating systems. The DVD is not viewable on a standard DVD player that is connected to a television because it has been produced at full PC resolution to insure the fidelity of the recording thus it requires the use of the Windows Media Player or similar playback application. This volume will play on a Macintosh computer.
One of the very first advantages the viewer will notice is the ability to pause each demonstration, back up to a particular point and re-play it. This is important, because it also enables the viewers to jump to a specific section, chosen from the main menu, and proceed at their own pace.
A typical chapter has an on-screen display of the Photoshop interface. The experience is like sitting beside Adam or looking over his shoulder as he moves the mouse and clicks this tool or that from the application. This is accompanied by an ongoing explanation of the action seen on screen. Adam maintains a moderate pace throughout each thorough demonstration. His low key and thoughtful narration match his soft-spoken voice and this can be reassuring to the viewer who is unfamiliar with the techniques that are shown. Adam also recognizes those aspects that are more complicated or less familiar by spending extra time when appropriate.
The DVD does more than simply show each of Photoshop’s tools that can be used to produce a beautiful astronomical picture. Adam also demonstrates the use of each one on data he has collected- that aspect alone makes this DVD worth owning! Each demonstration is also heavily laden with advice from one of the world leading practitioners- something that will save the viewer hours of frustration and experimentation.
As a bonus, Adam demonstrates how the cover art for the DVD was prepared.
Volume 2 and 3 comes as double disk set and is titled Essential Image Processing: From Raw Data to Pretty Picture. Unlike Volume 1, which focuses on the use of Photoshop, these editions walk the viewer through some of the theory and techniques for transforming raw data, fresh from the CCD camera, into a final presentation quality images using popular astronomical processing tools such as Maxim DL. Other applications that augment Maxim DL are also explained and final image production takes place in Photoshop. Each of these two volumes culminates in completely worked examples that illustrate a workflow for creating these images.
Over 12 hours of demonstrations are divided into a total of 25 chapters. As with Volume 1, both DVD’s are intended for playback on a Windows based PC, however, these discs will play on a Macintosh, too. Unlike the first volume, the playback occurs in a common web-browser that supports Macromedia Flash files, thus use of a stand-alone DVD player connected to a television is not possible.
Like Volume 1, both disks are menu driven thus allowing the viewer to watch each chapter sequentially, skip to a particular chapter, pause, back up and replay a section so they can absorb every nuance. Also shown, again, are the musical review sections at the end of each chapter.
The amount of information contained in this two-disk set is encyclopedic! Nothing on the market, no book or available DVD tutorial, comes close to the amount of information and advice that is presented throughout the chapters comprising this collection. Many chapters are stand alone- not necessarily based on other sections. However, every chapter of both volumes work well with each other to offer a thorough explanation of astronomical image processing heavily laced with advice.
The pace of each presentation is similar to that found in the first Volume and places Adam beside you, working on screen while he talks. It is very much like having him in the same room and at the end of the experience, you have a sense that you have gotten to know him!
There are some caveats that should be made to potential purchasers. None of these DVD’s will explain how to take astronomical images with a telescope. It is assumed that the viewer has purchased the necessary equipment and mastered the art of taking pictures with CCD camera. The purpose of Adam’s tutorials is to assist with the processing of data- that is where great pictures are made or lost!
I would not strongly recommend the double disk set, Volume’s 2 and 3, to an absolute beginner. However, since this set contains both basic and very advanced material, a quick read of the contents of these disks will help a prospective purchaser decide for himself or herself.
I believe they will be incredibly useful for a budding astrophotographer who has been struggling with their data. Unlike other forms of art where techniques can be gained in a classroom setting, astrophotography has, until very recently with the introduction of DVD’s such as these, been a self-learned skill obtained by painful and often frustrating experimentation. Obtaining Adam’s tutorials will change that!
I highly recommend these disks to experienced astrophotographers. There are dozens of techniques and hours of advice that will save them from wasted efforts and significantly improve the quality of their images!
All three volumes are available for purchase from Adam’s website. A few leading online telescope dealers are also offering copies for sale.
Adam Block’s Making Every Pixel Count, Volumes 1-3: highly recommended!
Written by R. Jay GaBany