Sunday, January 1, 2012

Eagle nebula in B&W H-alpha

Ever since this summer's imaging session at Lassen, I've wanted to process the hydrogen-alpha data that I acquired as a black-and-white image. I spent this evening working on the data in Pixinsight, and here's what I've come up with so far:


I shot these data during two nights, using 15-minute subexposures through an Astrodon 3nm H-alpha filter, for a total exposure time of 5 hours. This was with the 80mm refractor and borrowed QSI camera that I described in a previous post.

I've always enjoyed the look of black-and-white hydrogen-alpha images, and I wanted to try and make one myself. Images like this remind me of the days of heroic long exposures on gas-hypered Technical Pan 2415 film... days that I have to admit I didn't experience first-hand. And, frankly, I'm not too sorry about it, although it would make for some nice bragging rights. Me, I'm grateful for CCD cameras and autoguiders, which make the whole thing a lot more do-able, although it's still a fair amount of work.

The real key to an image like this is the narrowband hydrogen-alpha filter. I'm lucky that my friend from Cilice, who loaned me the camera, had invested in a filter with such a narrow bandpass. Besides bringing out all of the lovely emission nebulosity (which would look deep red in a color image), a filter like this makes the stars look very small! That's a very nice `perk', although it makes focusing and framing the image rather time-consuming. No need to shrink the stars in software when you have such tiny stars to begin with! I can't wait to get an H-alpha filter for my SBIG filter wheel, someday. I think I'll go with 3nm - it's worth the extra effort.

Processing in Pixinsight:

Like most CCD image processing, part of my workflow happened while the image was still linear, and then I took it to the non-linear realm with a histogram stretch, where I did further processing.

I started by using the A Trous Wavelet Transform (ATWT) tool to reduce noise, following the example from Juan Conejero's `tutorial post'. I used considerably less aggressive ATWT noise-reduction settings than Juan's example, though. Then I did some Richardson-Lucy deconvolution, again following a tutorial-like post by Juan. A real key to getting Deconvolution to work is the use of Dynamic PSF to model the telescope's point-spread function.

Once I had reduced noise with ATWT and applied a bit of deconvolution, I stretched the image into the non-linear realm using Histogram Transformation. (I just applied the stretch parameters from an AutoSTF into HistoTrans.) As per usual Pixinsight practice, I used the HDR Multiscale Median Transform (formerly HDRWT) to bring down the brightness in the central part of the nebula. I found that increasing the number of wavelet layers to 8 helped bring out detail nicely, and did the best job of `taming' the brightest areas. I did another moderate histogram stretch to increase contrast, and then applied the Local Histogram Equalization (LHE) tool, with a contrast limit of 2.0 and and Amount of .25.

A last, light little shot of ACDR was the last step. I did this with the built-in lightness mask enabled, so as to apply it only to the darkest areas. These areas had had their noise increased a bit by LHE.


I'm reasonably pleased with how this image turned out. I like the way the deconvolution brought out detail around the `Pillars of Creation' and other dusty structures in the nebula. HDRMMT also helped to bring out a fair amount of detail, and LHE pumped up the contrast between adjacent light and dark areas.

Naturally, I'd love to get additional hours of data, to bring out even more nebulosity at a reasonably high signal-to-noise ratio. Maybe next summer!

Oh, I almost forgot: I flipped the image left-for-right, compared to my previous Eagle nebula image. I hadn't realized that the previous image was oriented incorrectly. I think this one matches the published `Pillars' images better.

Hmmm... I wonder... since LRGB combinations in Pixinsight are supposed to be assembled from non-linear images, I wonder if I could get the histogram of the RGB image into the right kind of shape to match this one, and use this B&W H-alpha image as the luminance for an LRGB combine?  Hmm... I ought to check that out.

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