Stark Labs Affordable, Powerful, and Easy to Use Astrophotography Software


Astrophoto Insight & Astronomy Technology Today

Some of you may have seen articles and reviews I have done in Astrophoto Insight, Astronomy Technology Today, and Cloudy Nights (you can find these on the Articless and Reviews section of my personal page). I consider these three of my favorite astro-resources. Toss in the various Yahoo Groups and you’re set as far as I’m concerned. While the Yahoo groups and Cloudy Nights are free websites, Astrophoto Insight and Astronomy Technology Today both involve subscriptions for full access. Now, these aren’t break-the-bank kinds of prices. Astrophoto Insight will let you download the current issue for free and wants $24.95 for a “Platinum” level membership that will give you full access. Astronomy Technology Today wants $18 (for US print + online or for International online access). My advice - subscribe to both.

I subscribe to both and I do so not just because I’ve published in them or met the guys who run them. Sure, Al from Astrophoto Insight and Stuart and Gary from Astronomy Technology Today are all stand-up guys. These things and $1.69 get you a cup of coffee, not a wallet opening for a subscription, though. I subscribe because they publish solid articles on things I want to read about. From real tips and techniques to solid reviews, both do a bang-up job. And please, I’m not talking about my reviews and articles in here. I certainly skip those and can read them for free. When the latest issue of either comes out, I devour it. I devour it in the way I used to devour S&T years ago.

“Oh, but magazines are driven by ads” one might say. Sure, that’s a part of it. I’ve got a very long history with magazines and reviews as I grew up in the business (my father was a magazine editor). Ads give the magazines a lot of the money they need to do what they do but this can present a conflict of interest. So far, I’ve not detected biases in the reviews that would suggest the reviews are being slanted based on ad money. As someone who’s written for both, I can also state that I’ve been able to freely talk about the downsides of gear in my reviews. To me, that’s huge. Any product will have its good sides and bad. Some have more good and some more bad. To trust a source, you’ve got to know that when there are bad sides, they’ll be covered and not swept under the rug. Seeing both from the inside has made me feel I can certainly trust both. (FWIW, the more common thing to have happen is that when a product is really bad, it just won’t get reviewed. No, I’ve not hit that yet with either, but I did see it a bit growing up.)

Ads also do things for readers (apart from helping the magazine exist). They let us see neat new toys and find out new things going on in our hobby. Just a few days ago after seeing an ad in one of them I said, “Hey, that’s a cool new gizmo!” and contacted the company for more info. Depsite spending a lot of time with this hobby (far too much my wife would say), I’d missed this new gizmo (just so you don’t think I’m making this up, it was the Moonlight Telescope’s SCT focuser that lets you screw the focal reducer into the drawtube.)

There’s another thing that these two magazines do for readers when it comes to ads. They show ads for products that can’t make it into the bigger magazines. I certainly know this from first-hand experience. Our hobby has big companies and small companies and the small ones have certainly done a lot for our hobby too. Small ones often can’t afford to advertise in bigger magazines but can potentially afford to advertise in API and ATT. Or, even if they could, the ad wouldn’t have as much info in it as it’d be crammed into a small space.

If you’re not a subscriber / haven’t checked them out, do so. Heck, if somehow you’re reading this and don’t know about Cloudy Nights, stop reading this and get over there now. We’ve got some fantastic sources of information and communities available to us. Use them. Support them.



NEAIC and NEAF 2008

I'm writing this on the plane, heading back from my first trip to NEAF and to NEAIC. Many of you may know about NEAF as it's the largest astronomical vendor show in the country. For two days, the town of Suffern, NY is invaded by more amateur astronomers than you knew existed. In fact, most of the amateur astronomers and vendors that you know exist show up at NEAF. I had a lot of fun catching up with people I met least year at MWAIC, meeting in person people I've known over the Internet for years, and making new friends. It's really an amazing event. You owe it to yourself to get here some year.

NEAIC is an imaging satellite conference that brings in phenomenal speakers and vendors dedicated to astrophotography. At NEAIC, I got to spend time talking with Al Nagler (whom I'd meat at MAIC last year, spending hours talking with about astronomy and audio gear) and David Nagler of Televue, Rui Trippa of Atik, John Cordiale of Adirondack, Tim Puckett of Apogee, Kevin Nelson of QSI, Alan Holmes of SBIG, the Bisque brothers of Software Bisque, Don Goldman of Astrodon filters, Bob Denny of DC-3 Dreams (and ASCOM-fame), and Al Degutis of Astrophoto Insight. Many others were there as well. NEAIC was run by Jim Burnell (AIP4WIN) and Bob Moore who did an amazing job getting speakers together and organizing things. There giving talks were some of the world's best imagers, sharing some of their techniques. Seeing folks like Ken Crawford, Neil Flemming, and Jay GaBany, whose work is simply stunning, present many of their techniques was a real education. Getting to spend some good time with them was also a lot of fun - all really great guys in addition to being incredible imagers. I know a number of the speakers are putting their talks up on their websites. Check out the links above to see what you missed. My modest contribution to the conference was a talk entitled "Guiding on the Cheap". I've placed a QuickTime movie of the talk up in the Tutorials section for people to watch.

NEAIC was setup to have talks than ran the full range, from beginner to expert. We had Dave Snay doing a session on what to do and expect in your first night of imaging, taking people through the gear needed and how to go about actually getting and starting to process your first shots. We also had a talk by Robert Reeves on what's new in webcam astrophotography. Talks then went all the way to the design of ultra-high-end optical systems tailored for monster CCDs by Peter Ceravolo and on building a 9" TMB folded APO by Dietmar Hager, with many in between. There were workshops on topics like using AIP4WIN by Richard Berry, CCDNavigator and CCDAutoPilot by Steve Walters and John Smith, and on getting the most out of Photoshop by Warren Keller. By having three talks going at once, NEAIC managed over 20 talks in two days. All in all, a lot learned and a lot of fun had. If you missed it, consider it next year or consider MAIC in Chicago in a few months.

All this, and NEAF hadn't even begun! While I grew up not far from Suffern, I moved away before the hobby really took hold as an adult, and I'd never managed to make it to NEAF. Well, I sense I'll be going back. If there is gear you want to see in person or people you want to talk to about gear, the gear and people can be found at NEAF. It's really impressive. You can find a list of vendors on the main NEAF page, but that may still not give you a real idea of what it's like. NEAF was kicked off for me at the Sky and Telescope party, which was followed by the OPT party. The number of people in the room there who have helped move our hobby to where we are now was amazing. The room was packed and the vast majority I certainly didn't get to talk to. But if you've not been to NEAF, I can give you an idea by letting you know who I got to really talk to. There was Dennis DiCicco of Sky and Telescope, Craig Weatherwax of OPT (we seem to share the same barber), Alan Traino (who runs NEAF and can sure tell a story), Doug George of Diffraction Limited, and John Smith of CCDWare. Of course, more time talking with the likes of Jim Burnell, Warren Keller, Al and David Nagler, Kevin Nelson, Ken Crawford, the Bisque Brothers, Al Degutis, and Bob Denney.

Then at NEAF, there was a mix of getting to see all the newly introduced stuff, getting to kick the tires on existing gear, and getting go scrounge around for nice bargains in the clearance bins. I went in wanting to meet the crew from Lunt Solar Systems and see what their new solar scopes were about. Sadly, things were cloudy and so I couldn't look through them, but I did get to spend some time with them on the table. Boy, they sure are tempting! Over in the Astronomics booth, I saw the 8" RC from Astro-Tech. 6", 8", 10", 12" and 16" scopes are in the works - real RCs at low prices. The 6" comes in at $1295 and the 8" at $2995. The 10" was something around $5k, I believe. In fact, there were a number of RC scopes, modified DK scopes, etc. there at lower prices than we've seen before by far. Mike Siniscalchi and I spent a lot of time talking with Mike Bieler of Astronomics about their plans and about Cloudy Nights. I also got to meet Russ and crew from Denkmeier and to hear about a really neat image-intensifier system they're working on and to chat with Ted Ishikawa from Hutech (another Borg may be in my future), and with Gary and Stuart Parkerson of Astronomy Technology Today.

Many of the above I'd expected to do while here. No, I didn't know about the RC scopes, but I'd assumed we'd have something new from Astro-Tech. I also assumed we'd have something new from Televue. That was their 8 mm Ethos. I got to get a look through a pair of those in a binoviewer. Holy cow! You could hardly tell you were looking through anything! But, most of this I'd expected to some extent. Exciting, sure, but expected in some way. What was also great to see was the new stuff from new companies (or at least those I'd never heard of). One that caught my eye was a slick polymer solution for cleaning optics. It's not inexpensive stuff, but it sure did so the job and I'll probably pick some up for the next time I'm trying to clean my CCD off. It bonds to the dust particles, solidifies, and you just peel it (and the dust) off. Very slick. Another was the StableMax from Telescope Stability Systems, a new company. While there are some great portable piers out there - some of which are just breathtakingly cool, these aren't inexpensive bits of gear. The StableMax was seriously sturdy and has a very trick setup for mating to the mount. A removable, indexed adapter plate attaches to your mount and then slides into a spot on the tripod. This makes it so you can change mount heads easily while using the same tripod (adapter plates range from $50-$100) - either if you have more than one mount or if you end up swapping mounts down the road. The machining was wonderfully precise and the thing wouldn't budge. I'm going to be taking some measurements of my EM-10 and talking to Tim Ray soon as this seems to be a great, well-engineered solution.

Add to this, I met a ton of users - far too many to list here (and far too taxing on my memory to recall all the names!) I'd like to thank all those that came up to say "Hi" and that they were big fans of PHD Guiding. Getting to talk with you and hear how much its helped and see how many people its helped is really wonderful.

If there's one thing to get out of this blog entry, it's not that Craig got to meet a bunch of folks. It's that NEAIC and NEAF let me meet a bunch of folks. If you were here, you could have asked Al Nagler about the new Ethos, Russ Lederman about the new coatings on his binoviewers, Gary and Stuart about what's coming up in ATT, etc. They're all here, they're all amateur astronomers like you, and they're all ready and willing to talk. You'll get to do that and you'll meet people you may have known in the ether for ages, but never actually met. You may come home a bit lighter in the wallet (others seem to have managed to spend nothing - Craig from OPT made sure that wasn't my fate within minutes of opening, selling me a Baader Hyperion zoom), but I doubt you'll mind. I can't imagine you wouldn't have a good time.

Wecome to Craig's Astro Blog

Welcome to my astrophotography blog. As the author of programs like PHD Guiding and Nebulosity, I get a lot of questions on user groups like the Stark Labs Yahoo group. While some of these cover things specific to the software, other things are more general. One goal of this blog is to bring together a number of questions and answers that come up often or are of broad appeal.

I also get a lot of cameras and other gear here for testing (see reviews in Astrophoto Insight and Astronomy Technology Today) and for integration into the software. A second goal of the blog is to give short-form reviews / thoughts on these.

This is my first blog. I have no idea how well this will work out, but it costs nothing but time to try. Hmmm, I seem to recall saying something like that when I started to write Nebulosity.

While starting things off, I'd like to give a big THANK YOU to Michael Garvin for helping me get this off the ground.