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Book Reviews


Star Vistas - A Collection of Fine Art Astrophotography

Authors: Greg Parker and Noel Carboni

Publisher: Springer

ISBN: 9780387884356

Price: £31.99 (Hb), 155pp


Star Vistas

Buy this book from Amazon
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Greg Parker and Noel Carboni are two names that will be familiar to anyone involved in astro imaging. Their collaboration via the Internet, with Greg imaging from his New Forest Observatory and Noel transforming the raw image data into spectacular deep space images from Florida needs no introduction. This collaboration that began on an Internet astronomy forum has now developed into their first joint publication. The forewords, written by a triumvirate of astronomical and rock music legends in Brian May, the late Sir Arthur C Clarke, and Sir Patrick Moore, really sets the tone for the truly exquisite images within the book's 155 pages.

Whilst not of the epic proportions set by Giles Sparrow's coffee table killer 'Cosmos', the book is still a hefty tome, printed to a very high standard with the image reproduction being uniformly superb. This book is just page after page of jaw-droppingly good shots that are taken with quite modest equipment by today's standards: an off-the-shelf one-shot pairing of CCD cameras and a similarly off-the-shelf pairing of refractor and SCT telescopes.

The book contains just enough detail to whet the appetite of budding imagers, whilst not overburdening the reader with too much technical detail. Noel's Photoshop actions (a staple of my own imaging) feature throughout, with staggering amounts of detail eked out of each and every image.

Where it really stuns is not with the close up shots, or shots of objects like M27, where a mono CCD using hydrogen-alpha filters and the like would probably have delivered more to the final image, (likewise with their wide shot of Orion, which as an example shows none of Barnard's Loop) but from the almost David Lean like panoramic shots of objects like the Veil Nebula complex, or a simply staggering IC443/ Jellyfish nebula, where you almost feel like you are flying towards them ready for rendezvous.

The thing for me that was most heartening is that you can see how it was done. Anyone who has similar imaging set-ups will recognise the final results, but where with one's own shots you may feel justifiably proud of, these really do go that extra mile. The images are not perfect, evidence of that is clear in the double page image of M31, which shows trailing stars near to the edges, or M46 that shows star colour alignment issues, but this just adds to the fact that you're not looking at some image data from Hubble or the Keck twins, but from a relatively small amateur observatory located in the cloud and rain sodden south of England, taken by a pairing who continually show the way forward for many imagers all over the world. The images are not all 'money shots' (for want of a better term), or big complex nebulae, and the book is only enhanced by the inclusion of more simple subjects like Polaris and Vega, still shot with outstanding clarity.

This book is a joy to behold, and will act as a very high benchmark and reference guide for the imaging fraternity to show how it is done, whilst at the same time proving that single-shot colour cameras are capable of magical results in the hands of a pairing truly dedicated to their art.

Nick Howes

Interview with Noel Carboni

Astronomy Now spoke to co-author and astro image processor extraordinaire Noel Carboni about his partnership with Greg Parker.

Noel Carboni and "Quacky".

Tell us a little bit about you and Greg. How did you come to work together?

     First a tiny bit of background about me to set the stage for our meeting... I have been interested in photography for 30 years. In 1979 my wife and I began seriously looking at film SLR cameras and in 1980 we bought our first, a Canon A-1. A set of good lenses soon followed, and we used that gear for many a year to freeze moments in time. Most notably, however, I always seemed to shoot sparingly, as film and developing costs were always on my mind. With 12 or 24 exposures on a roll, and maybe at most a roll or two extra in the bag, every photo was carefully considered. Photography became a minor hobby at best.

     A career software engineer, in the early 1990s I became involved with web publishing as a secondary responsibility, and was provided with a copy of Adobe Photoshop by my then employer. I was instantly hooked, realizing that so very much would be possible through digital image processing. For example, owing to my efforts our company had one of the first graphic web page backgrounds that could be seen on the World Wide Web.
      By the mid-1990s I was watching carefully as digital camera technology developed - back then the megapixel race started as a kilopixel race - and by 1997 I had my first Olympus digital 'SLR-like' camera. I have been involved in online photography forums since that time, and I often spoke of the "freedom of digital" - of being able to say "it's only data" while shooting whatever and whenever and however often. With rechargeable batteries it was truly a zero cost proposition to shoot digital photos, and with so much practice my interest and prowess with a camera grew rapidly, as well as my knowledge of digital image processing. I moved up to Canon's first 'prosumer' digital SLR, then upgraded through their 'prosumer' line as time went on, skipping a few models but always being at most a year or two from the leading edge.
       I kept my computer hardware and software up to date as well, most notably choosing workstation class machines and upgrading through every version of Adobe Photoshop that was released. Being a practical thinker I gauged what I did with my digital image processing by my results - i.e. I paid attention to what worked and what didn't. Over time I developed quite a number of techniques, and it finally dawned on me to capture these techniques and market them as Photoshop actions. Image processing and computer software development had a lot in common. At that time I started ProDigital Software. My 'dSLR Tools' and 'dSLR Fractal Sharpen' actions sold well online, and so I found that eCommerce could be the basis for a viable business.
      By late 2004 I was doing well enough financially to be able to purchase a fine Meade telescope, and it wasn't a big stretch to extend my photography and digital imaging hobbies into the night. What I found was that, while there were a lot of folks taking photos in the daytime, astrophotography was and is - excitingly - still developing.
       It also naturally flowed that I should become involved in astronomy forums. By chance I found a little forum called OurDarkSkies.com with a particularly friendly group of folks, and I began developing my knowledge of astrophotography as well as the 'black art' of astro image processing. From time to time folks would place their astro images online for others to see, and I found helping others with their images is a great way to both learn and gain experience. Even though I was capturing a lot of my own images, I found I craved more and different objects than I could get from my quite light polluted home location, so I began processing other folks' images as well. It didn't take me long to develop a specialised set of astro image processing actions called Astronomy Tools.
       Then, on 5 August 2005, enter Greg Parker... A forum member and accomplished astrophotographer named Bud Guinn asked Greg Parker to join our group at OurDarkSkies.com. It seems Greg had a number of image datasets he'd very carefully captured with his very good optics in his back garden observatory, under the reasonably dark skies of his New Forest location in the south of England, but he found image processing challenging. Greg noticed my tendency to reprocess images, and said he had "tonnes of images" he'd like reworked. When I finally did look over some of his image datasets, I found that they weren't bad at all, and that there was so much more information in them he hadn't brought out that I became hooked on processing them. We worked out how to get hundreds of megabytes from his place to mine, half a globe away, and in what format, so I began to work through his data backlog. We communicated well, and soon it became clear we had something good going. We were also becoming fast friends.
       We began discussing turning all these images into a coffee table book at around the start of 2006, and thus our collaboration took on a goal besides just producing pretty pictures: we resolved to turn 100 or so astro images into spectacular full-bleed pages in a book, along with inspirational descriptions and fun facts. My personal goal is to inspire young people to become interested in the universe around us.
Our best image capture and digital processing work has gone into the pages of Star Vistas, and Astronomy Tools saw several new versions as I turned techniques I developed while processing these images into useful tools for others to use.
For the public unveiling of Star Vistas at AstroFest 2009 in London, at Greg's insistence I flew over from the US to the UK and stayed a week with him and his wonderful family. His wife, son, and even his pets made me feel extraordinarily welcome, and we discovered our interests run on many parallels and that quite clearly our friendship is still growing. I definitely see more books in our future.

IC 443. Image: Greg Parker and Noel Carboni.

Once Greg has sent you the raw image files, how long does it take you to produce the finished piece?

     It's interesting, but it seems to take just about as long for me to process a dataset into a finished image as it does for Greg to expose it. If it's a simple image that has taken him, say, several hours of time in a single evening to capture and stack, it will take me several hours to finish that stacked data into a spectacular image. Many of our images are mosaics or combinations of datasets from multiple sessions, sometimes using various filters, and the correlation still holds, since the digital work on any one given dataset usually takes me several hours. Some of our most complex and deepest images have kept us both busy literally for weeks.

You have created your Astronomy Tools Photoshop plug-in for image processing. What do they do and how can people download it?

     It is my goal to provide tools to help astrophotographers process their data into fine results using almost entirely Adobe Photoshop, which I feel gives the greatest control, flexibility, and quality. Photoshop actions - such as Astronomy Tools - are pre-sequenced sets of Photoshop operations that can be applied to all or part of an image being edited. Over time whenever I found I was doing the same or similar operations over and over, I captured the sequence into an action. This has the wonderful effect of raising the thinking level while editing from atomic ('curves' or 'median filter') to a higher, more result-oriented level (e.g., 'assemble R, G, B channels from FITS files into a color image' or 'remove light pollution' or 'make nebula lighter'). In turn, good results become more repeatable and easier to achieve. There are also some actions in my set to help add artistic sparkle and framing to astro images.
      I have Astronomy Tools actions available for two different variants of Photoshop (Photoshop full version and Photoshop Elements). The actions can be found on my website, along with a detailed textual and visual description of what each action does, at: http://www.ProDigitalSoftware.com
There are two initial operations that are still (mostly) outside the realm of Photoshop processing and my actions - stacking and initial levels-stretching (brightening the image from linear imager readings into a visible image). Greg uses dedicated astronomy software called Maxim DL to both acquire the exposures and stack them into a reasonably sized IEEE 32 bit floating point FITS file to send to me. Then I use the ESO/ESA/NASA FITS Liberator plug-in to stretch the levels with complex math functions (e.g. ArcSinh(ArcSinh(x))) while opening the FITS files into Photoshop for further manipulation. I plan to bring even these operations into the realm of Photoshop, as I am actively developing Photoshop plug-ins at this time, ultimately to include stacking and gamma conversion capability. I have planned a mid-2009 release for the first of these plug-ins.

M31. Image: Greg Parker and Noel Carboni.

Which of the images that you and Greg have done together has been the most difficult or the most rewarding?

     I find them all extremely rewarding. I get a 'wide-eyed wonder' feeling as I see the data develop into these simply amazing views of the cosmos, and Greg has told me he gets that feeling as well when he sees the results. I often send him copies at various stages of development just so he can also see the results unfold. Sometimes he can't wait for me and develops data into an image himself just to get an early look.
      For me the most rewarding image has been our mosaic of the North America and Pelican nebulae in which everything came together simply beautifully. Greg captured the photons on several very still nights with great seeing, he had the optics collimated and focused perfectly, the telescope tracked well, and the stars just came out like so much glittering diamond dust. When the captured data is simply excellent it makes it easier for me to turn it into a great result. Even though we captured it only recently, this image made it into Star Vistas at the very last moment, as I replaced a two-pager of the same objects we had done earlier that was good, but not as truly spectacular as this one.
       The next most rewarding image I can think of is our mosaic of Orion's Belt, including the Flame and Horsehead nebulae, simply because there are so very many amazing nebulae up that way to see, and the objects are so recognizable to everyone. That image was also fairly difficult in that it's made up of at least ten different exposure sets through several different telescopes, all of which had to aligned perfectly and assembled into a seamless mosaic.
      Regarding the most difficult and frustrating, there have been several very dim objects in rich star fields that simply did not yield to conventional techniques for improving astro images: capturing more data and spending more processing time. Owing to limitations in using narrowband filters with very fast optics such as Greg's f/2 set-up, we have not assembled a lot of narrowband imagery (e.g. imagery in just the light of sulphur, hydrogen, and oxygen emissions, which helps minimise the stars). Our images are, as a result, in true visual color, but this can mean that bright stars may overwhelm dim nebulae. One such challenging object we photographed just recently was a supernova remnant in Cassiopeia called CTB1. We captured it - barely - but it's still an ever-so-dim red ring amongst a sea of beautiful, bright background stars.

Do you know of any other imaging teams that work together like you and Greg do?

     Collaborations are rare but not unheard of. Two folks who we've seen collaborate in the past and who have often served as our great inspiration are Jim Misti and Rob Gendler.
If I had to point to the main reasons why our collaboration works well, I'd have to say 1) we are both perfectionists, 2) it takes about as long for me to do my part as for Greg to do his part, and 3) we think a lot alike, almost to the point where you'd swear we share a telepathic link. I can't count the number of times we've said the same things to one another in e-mails that crossed the wire in the Atlantic Ocean.

Find out more:


Greg Parker's New Forest Observatory: http://www.newforestobservatory.com/

Noel Carboni's astrophotography website: http://ncarboni.home.att.net/Astrophotography.html

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