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The New CCD Astronomy
Submitted: Friday, 23rd September 2005 by Paul Russell
Over the past 10 months or so as I’ve moved deeper and deeper into the quicksand of astro digital imagery one book seemed to be jumping up for my attention over and over. Ron Wodaski’s “The New CCD Astronomy” by New Astronomy Press. I’d often thought “I’d like to get hold of that book one day and see what it says.” but I never quite convinced myself to part with my hard earned cash. Mainly because I was using a Canon 300D and a ToUcam, not a dedicated CCD camera and this book dealt with cameras like SBIG and Starlight Express and Apogee and Finger Lake. Way beyond me I though. WRONG! This book is badly misnamed. Ron should have called it “Digital Astrophotography Mainly for CCDs But Extremely Useful for Other Types of Digital Imaging for Dummies”. While this book may not appeal to the hardcore, “I’ll work out my own algorithms, thank you” CCD imager, I found it to be a revelation in CCD imaging and processing. “Revelation”, is that too strong a word? Well it isn’t for me!

Click to Enlarge
"The New CCD Astronomy" by Ron Wodaski

Revelation doesn’t mean perfect, no it’s not perfect, but it certainly is an eye opener. Written in easy to follow, non-jargonistic terminology (no big complicated words) with hundreds of step by step instructions and images, I found that Ron assumes very little about the ability of the reader and starts from the lowest common denominator. That someone reading this book might know next to nothing about CCD imaging and he takes it from there, building as he goes. It is not a technical manual. It doesn’t tell you in detail, how a CCD works or the mathematics or physics behind them or of the processing software, except in very easy to understand broad terms, yet still covering the fundamentals. This is a “How To Do It” book. And why am I ranting if I don’t have an SBIG etc. Because the principles and techniques he describes, for the large part, are easily transferable to DSLR and Webcam technology.

Ok some of this may not be strictly relevant to DSLR processing, as he is describing processing monochrome images while the DSLR work in colour. Throughout the book he uses CCDSoft and Maxim DL as his initial main image processing software. NP many of the techniques are transferable. Plus Maxim is coming out for DSLRs. Plus I kept hearing myself saying “I could try that in Registax” (or some other program). The book doesn’t just cover how to use CCD cameras. In its 470 odd pages it covers the different types of CCD cameras, mount selection, scope selection, focusing, guiding, exposure control, image capture, image reduction (flats, darks and bias), initial and post processing. In fact the last two chapters are almost all given over to processing using Photoshop.

Perhaps an outline of the book will illustrate my enthusiasm. It is broken in to three main parts. Each part is then broken down into chapters then each chapter broken into sections. For example:

  • Part 1: Getting Started with CCD
    • Chapter 1. Using a CCD Camera
    • Chapter 2. Practical Focusing
    • Chapter 3. Practical Imaging
  • Part 2. Taking Great Images
    • Chapter 4. The Hardware Explained
    • Chapter 5. Taking Guided Exposures
    • Chapter 6. Increasing Image Quality
  • Part 3. Advanced Image Processing
    • Chapter 7. Colour Imaging
    • Chapter 8. Image Processing Fundamentals
    • Chapter 9 Image processing for Celestial Objects

If we are to look at say Chapter 6, it includes sections on Image Reduction, Using Dark Frames, Using Flat-Field Frames, Image Reduction in Action, Other Tips on Cutting Down Noise and Dealing with Light Pollution Gradients. Each one of these sections is then broken down to step by step component processes with examples of how to do it, often with downloadable images from the website to practice on. (This option of downloadable images is particularly useful for the Advanced Image Processing area. Not a lot of us would have Maxim DL or CCDSoft, but many of us have Photoshop or similar and most of the final processing after reduction is done in Photoshop).

Ok, so what could I do with the step by step processes Ron uses. Well I don’t have Maxim DL or CCDSoft, but I do have Photoshop. Below is an example of before and after using one of the step by step processes Ron describes.

Using his steps I was able to convert the image on the left to the image on the right in around 10 minutes. I wasn’t careful with the process. I basically used a rough enough is good enough approach to it to get it done quickly. Consequently the full size image is not as good as it could have been, however it’s not too bad either. I also didn’t worry about the bloomed stars exercise either.

So to me it’s obvious that I’m going to get a lot out of the two chapters on processing. What about the rest of the book? Without a doubt I am going to find it very useful for everything from mount/camera/scope setup to Autoguiding to image capture to image reduction and more. Maybe not using the software he describes, but much of it is readily transferable to DSLR technology and application.


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The original

Click to Enlarge
After 10 minutes of processing

I mentioned earlier on that the book is not perfect. Ok so after raving about it, what is wrong with the book?

  1. The images of celestial objects throughout the book are generally poor. This is by far and away the biggest issue. So poor in fact you can’t see what he is trying to illustrate. The graphs and tables and dialogue boxes are excellent, it’s just the object images. Many of the images use colour or describe aspects of the images that require fine detail to see. There is no colour in the book and the fine detail is often totally inadequate. I found this very frustrating at times. Ron has gotten around this problem by making the book available online in PDF form. The quality and colour of the images in the PDF versions are very good. Not excellent, but very good none the less. In two respects this is handy. Rather than drag the book outside with you when you are imaging you can take it in your laptop in PDF form and have it available on your screen when ever you need it. You can also have the PDF open when you are processing your images and flip back and forwards between the electronic book and the image you are working on. This way you don’t have to continually look away from the screen to try to find your place in the book. However for general reading of the book it’s a pain in the butt to be quite honest. I kept trying to see detail he was explaining and it just wasn’t there, or he would give an image example of how the red Quick Mask would look on the image in Photoshop and it couldn’t be seen at all in the B&W images.
  2. At times (not too often) the book describes a process assuming you know more than you do, for example the purpose of a Quick Mask and how to use it in Photoshop. While it is not his intention to give a full run down on how to use Photoshop and its hundreds and hundreds of functions, I found myself sometime trying to remember how to do that particular “thing”. As I said, this wasn’t often but newcomers to Photoshop might find it confusing.
  3. There are numerous spelling mistakes and typos throughout the book. Subsequent to the books release an “Errata” was posted on the webpage containing the majority of mistakes.
  4. In one section many of the images and illustrations were wrongly numbered, which lead to a bit of confusion for a little while. It’s easy enough to work out, but I was scratching my head there for a while.
  5. While the net locations of the downloadable images are written in the book, you can’t get to them by typing the address into the address bar of your browser. I found I had to go to the Home page, and then downloads then right to the bottom of the page to “Tutorial Related Downloads”

So what is my final impression? If someone gave me the book to read and I had access to the PDF files, would I buy it? I’d be online ordering it in a flash. If I didn’t have access to the PDFs?  I’d have to consider it but yes I’d probably still buy it. As I mentioned at the top, it may not suit the hardcore imager who already knows what they are doing (though I think even they would get something out of this book) but if you your starting out I would consider this book a must have. What Michael Covington did for the film astrophotographer in “Astrophotography for the Amateur” Ron Wodaski had done for the digital imager. In fact having both those books I find they compliment each other extremely well.

If you get the chance to have a read of the book from a friend, have a read. You will find it worthwhile.


The New CCD Astronomy, by Ron Wodaski - 488 pages, 8.5x11" US$49.95

ISBN: 0-9711237-0-5

Review by Paul Russell ([1ponders]). Discuss this review at the IceInSpace Forums.
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