Don't be fooled by StarTools' simple interface - you are forgiven if, at first glance, you get the impression StarTools offers only the basics. Nothing could be further from the truth!
StarTools goes deep. Very deep. It's just not 'in your face' about it and you can still get great results without delving into the depths of its capabilities. It's up to you.
If you're a seasoned photographer looking to get more out of your data, StarTools will allow you to visibly gain the edge with novel, brute-force techniques and data mining routines that have only just become viable on modern 64-bit multi-core CPUs and increases in RAM and storage space.
If you're a beginner, StarTools will assist you by making it easy to achieve great results out-of-the box, while you get to know the exciting field of astrophotography better.
Whatever your situation, skills, equipment and prior experience, you'll find that working with StarTools is quite a bit different than most software you've worked with. And in astrophotography, that tends to be a good thing!
Navigation within StarTools generally takes place between the main screen and the different modules. StarTools' navigation was written to provide a fast, predictable and consistent work flow.
There are no windows that overlap, obscure or clutter the screen. Where possible, feedback and responsiveness will be immediate. Many modules in StarTools offer on-the-spot background processing, yielding quick final results for evaluation and further tweaking.
In some modules a preview area can be specified in order to get a better idea of how settings would modify the image in a particular area, saving the user from waiting for the whole image to be re-calculated.
In both the main screen and the different modules, a toolbar is found at the very top, with buttons that perform functionality that is specific to the active module. In case of the main screen, this toolbar contains buttons for opening an image, saving an image, undoing/redoing the last operation, invoking the mask editor, switching Tracking mode on/off, restoring the image to a particular state, and opening an 'about' dialog.
Exclusive to the main screen, the buttons that activate the different modules, reside on the left hand side of the main screen. Note that the modules will only successfully activate once an image has been loaded, with the exception of the 'LRGB' module. Note also that some module may remain unavailable, depending on whether Tracking mode is engaged.
Consistent throughout StarTools, a set of zoom control buttons are found in the top right corner, along with a zoom percentage indicator.
Panning controls ('scrollbar style') are found below and to the right of the image, as appropriate, depending on whether the image at its current zoom level fits in the application window.
Common to most modules is a 'Before/After' button, situated next to the zoom controls, which toggles between the original and processed version of an image for easy comparison.
All modules come with a 'Help' button in the toolbar, which explains, in brief, the purpose of the module. Furthermore, all settings and parameters come with their own individual 'Help' buttons, situated to the right of the parameter control. These help buttons explain, again in brief, the nature of the parameter or setting.
Even the way StarTools displays and scales images, has been created specifically for astrophotography.
StarTools implements a custom scaling algorithm in its user interface, which makes sure that perceived noise levels stay constant, no matter the zoom level. This way, nasty noise surprises when viewing the image at 100% are avoided.
Even more clever, StarTools scaling algorithm can highlight latent and faint patterns (often indicating stacking problems or acquisition errors) by intentionally causing an aliasing pattern at different zoom levels in the presence of such patterns.
The parameters in the different modules are typically controlled by one of two types of controls;
1A level setter, which allows the user to quickly set the value of a parameter within a certain range2An item selector, which allows the user to switch between different modes.
Setting the value represented in a level setter control is accomplished by clicking on the '+' and '-' buttons to increment or decrement the value respectively. Alternatively you can click anywhere in the area between the '-" and '+' button to set a value quickly.
Switching items in the item selector is accomplished by clicking the arrows at either end of the item description. Note that the arrows may disappear as the first or last item in a set of items is reached. Alternatively the user may click on the label area of the item selector to see the full range of items which may then be selected from a pop-over menu.
'Tracking' data mining plays a very important role in StarTools and understanding it is key to achieving superior results with StarTools.
As soon as you load any data, StarTools will start Tracking the evolution of every pixel in your image, constantly keeping track of things like noise estimates, parameters you use and other statistics.
Tracking makes workflows much less linear and allows for StarTools' engine to "time travel" between different versions of the data as needed, so that it can insert modifications or consult the data in different points in time as needed ('change the past for a new present and future'). It's the primary reason why there is no difference between linear and non-linear data in StarTools, and the reason why you can do things in StarTools that would have otherwise been nonsensical (like deconvolution after stretching your data). If you're not familiar with Tracking and what it means for your images, signal fidelity and simplification of the workflow & UI, please do read up on it!
Tracking how you process your data also allows the noise reduction routines in StarTools to achieve superior results. By the time you get to your end result, the Tracking feature will have data-mined/pin-pointed exactly where (and how much) visible noise grain exists in your image. I therefore 'knows' exactly how much noise reduction to apply in each area of your image.
Noise reduction is applied at the very end, as you switch Tracking off, because doing it at the very last possible moment will have given StarTools the longest possible amount of time to build and refine its knowledge of where the noise is in your image. This is different from other software, which allow you to reduce noise at any stage, since such software does not track signal evolution and its noise component.
Tracking how you processed your data also allows the Color module to calculate and reverse how the stretching of the luminance information has distorted the color information (such as hue and saturation) in your image, without having to resort to 'hacks'. Due to this capability, color calibration is best done at the end as well, before switching Tracking off. This too is different from other software, which wants you to do your colour calibration before doing any stretching, since it cannot deal with colour correction after the signal has been non-linearly transformed like StarTools can.
The knowledge that Tracking gathers is used in many other ways in StarTools, however, the nice thing about Tracking is that it is very unobtrusive. In fact, it actually helps get you get better results from your data in less time by homing in on parameters in the various modules that it thinks are good defaults, given what Tracking has learnt about your data.
Getting to grips with new software can be daunting, but StarTools was designed to make this as painless as possible. This quick, generic work flow will get you started.
Open an image. Processing in StarTools is easiest and will yield vastly better results if the data is as "virgin" as possible, meaning unstretched, not colour balanced, not noise reduced and not deconvolved. Best results are achieved with data that is as close to what the camera recorded (e.g. simple photon counts) as possible.
Do not use any software that may have meddled with the data prior to passing it to your stacking program. Avoid any pre-conversion tools or software that came with your camera. Make sure that any stacking software that you use is set up to perform as little processing to the data as possible. For example, if you use Deep Sky Stacker make sure that Per Channel Color Calibration and RGB Channels Calibration are set to 'no'. Also make sure that, in Deep Sky Stacker, the final file is saved with settings 'embedded', rather than applied.
Counter-intuitively, the output you will be after will, more often than not, have a distinct, heavy color bias with little or no apparent detail. Worry not; subsequent processing in StarTools will remove the color bias, while restoring and bringing out detail.. If, looking at the initial image leaves you wondering how on earth this will be turned into a nice picture, you are often on the right track.
Upon opening an image, the Tracking dialog will open, asking you about the characteristics of the data. Choose the option that best matches the data being imported.
Launch AutoDev to help inspect the data. Chances are that the image looks terrible, which is - believe it or not - the point. In the presence of problems in the data, AutoDev will show these problems until they are dealt with. Because StarTools constantly tries to make sense of your data, StarTools is very sensitive to artefacts, meaning anything that is not real celestial detail (such as stacking artefacts, dust donuts, gradients, terrestrial scenery, etc.). Just 'Keep' the result. StarTools, thanks to Tracking, will allow us to redo the stretch later on.
At this point, things to look out for are;
•Stacking artefacts close to the borders of the image. These are dealt with in the Crop or Lens modules•Bias or gradients (such as light pollution or skyglow). These are dealt with in the Wipe module.•Oversampling (meaning the finest detail, such as small stars, being "smeared out" over multiple pixels). This is dealt with in the Bin module.•Coma or elongated stars towards one or more corners of the image. These can be ameliorated using the Lens module.
Fix the issues that AutoDev has brought to your attention;
1Ameliorate coma using the Lens module.2Crop any remaining stacking artefacts.3Bin the image until each pixel describes one unit of real detail.4Wipe gradients and bias away. Be very mindful of any dark anomalies - bump up the Dark Anomaly filter if dealing with small ones (such as dark pixels) or mask big ones out using the Mask editor. Use the 'Temporary AutoDev' feature to get a better idea of how Wipe is doing.
Once all issues are fixed, launch AutoDev again and tell it to 'redo' the stretch. If all is well, AutoDev will now create a histogram stretch that is optimised for the "real" object(s) in your clean data. If your data is very noisy, it is possible AutoDev will optimise for the noise, mistaking it for real detail. In this case you can tell it to Ignore Fine detail.
If your object(s) reside on an otherwise uninteresting or "empty" background, you can tell AutoDev where the interesting bits of your image are by clicking & dragging a Region Of Interest.
Don't worry about the colouring just yet - focus getting the detail out of your data first.
Season your image to taste. Apply some deconvolution with the Decon module, dig out detail with the Wavelet Sharpen ('Sharp') module, enhance Contrast with the Contrast module and fix any dynamic range issues with the HDR module.
There are many ways to enhance detail to taste and much depends on what you feel is most important to bring out in your image.
Launch the Color module.
See if StarTools comes up with a good colour balance all by itself. A good colour balance shows a good range of all star temperatures, from red, orange and yellow through to white and blue. HII areas will tend to look purplish/pink, while galaxy cores tend to look yellow and their outer rims tend to look bluer.
Green is an uncommon colour in outer space (though there are notable exceptions, such as areas that are strong in OIII such as the core of M42). If you see green dominance, you may want to reduce the green bias. If you think you have a good colour balance, but still see some dominant green in your image, you can remove the last bit of green using the 'Cap Green' function.
Switch Tracking off and apply noise reduction. You will now see what all the fuss is about, as StarTools seems to know exactly where the noise exists in your image and snuffs it out. The main parameters to tweak are 'Smoothness', 'Brightness Detail Loss' and 'Color Detail Loss'.
Pour yourself your favourite beverage and pat yourself on the back for a job well done!