Utilities and Info

This hobby can be a complex one. Where there are multiple ways to approach a single problem. An example being just how you even go about collecting your data. Off the top of my head, there’s  about 4 suitable for DSLR users and maybe 6 for CMOS/CCD imagers. Here, you’ll find links to software that will signpost you in the right direction.

Remember, there are multiple ways to approach a situation, and the correct bit of software can help smooth the difficulty curve out a bit more. The software I’ll list here are ones that I’ve personally used or use. That way, I can give you first hand experience.

A note on cost: Astrophotography is expensive. The software is no exception sometimes. Where possible I will include free software, but a fair bit of it isn’t free.

Below you’ll find information on software I’ve used for

  • Image Acquisition – actually taking photos in the first place.

  • Processing & Editing – How to make the pictures look even more pretty.

  • Stacking – Combining multiple sub exposures into one image.

  • Polar Alignment – Vital for long exposure astrophotography.

  • Planetarium Software – How to plan your night’s imaging.

  • Computer Control – How to connect your mount to a computer.

Reviews can be found on their own reviews page.

Image Acquisition

Let’s start with the basics: how to take a picture. To get a successful picture of deep sky, long exposures are required. I began by holding a mobile phone to my eyepiece – this is called digiscoping and is probably how most of us will get the bug.

From there, you’ll end up connecting a camera directly to your telescope, or using a camera lens to take photos of the night sky. Here’s some ways of grabbing those photons (that I’ve used).

  • Intervalometer – An Intervalometer is a device that plugs into your DSLR camera. It’s also called a remote shutter, or cable release. They can be programmed to take a number of shots you want; a delay period, a long exposure period and an interval period. They are the easiest way and probably the best way of taking pictures with a portable rig.

  • Astrophotography Tool – My preferred image acquisition program is Astrophotography Tool (APT).  This program in its free version has everything you’ll need to start shooting. It can control the mount and camera, plate solve, control filter wheels etc. You can create exposure plans, dark frame plans and so on. In its paid version you can get bahtinov mask aids, focus aids and framing masks so you can match projects that go over multiple nights. Yes, I love APT.


  • SharpCap Pro – Sharpcap is a program aimed mostly at CCD/CMOS style dedicated cameras. In fact it can’t link to a DSLR. However it’s lightweight and very responsive, though I personally find the GUI a bit unpleasant. It is very good, however, at solar system workloads. It’s easy to set up taking videos that you need to do solar system astrophotography. The paid version also has a polar alignment feature where you can use your guidescope and guide camera bundle to polar align your EQ mount.

  • EOS Utility – Believe it or not, I have actually used Canon’s built in software to remote control my DSLRs sometime. I don’t usually do this for my main imaging DSLR, but when I used a Canon 450D on the Omegon MiniTrack, I would hook it up to the laptop and use EOS utility as an intervalometer. It has bulb exposures, live view and the basic camera control features, but it is (rather apparent) not designed for astrophotography.

    Image Processing & Editing

Processing and editing mean the same thing in the world of astrophotography. What it means is taking your images into software to tease details, colours and make adjustments – or edit – your photos. This is where you take your images and make them amazing. Most of the software here is paid for. The only one that is free is GIMP.

  • GIMP – GNU Image Manipulation Program is a free, open source image editor akin to the likes of Photoshop. I have used it sparingly in the past before I was able to afford Photoshop. It works well enough, but I feel the best way of thinking about GIMP is Photoshop lite. GIMP will do you perfectly well if you can’t afford any paid software.

Editing NGC7000 using GIMP
  • Photoshop – One of the most well known programs in the world for any image editing. It works particularly well with astrophotography also. Powerful but with a bit of a learning curve, many people use Photoshop. I personally use it. If you’re just starting out with astrophotography editing and you have Photoshop, then I made an astrophotography processing tutorial that takes you through some of the core features you’ll be using.

  • AstroPixel Processor – I use this mainly as a stacking program but it does have image editing functionality with it. It’s good for making combined photos if you’re using mono data for example, and has some pretty powerful light pollution removal functions but aside from that I find its editing quite poor when compared to something like Photoshop. My friend Stacey does some nice tutorials on how to get acquainted with AstroPixel Processor.


Stacking is the art of taking multiple shorter sub-exposures, along with your calibration frames and combining them into one image that has a better signal to noise ratio, is cleaner and has more detail on show. I’ve used two programs to stack: one free, one paid.

  • Deep Sky StackerThis is probably the program every astrophotographer starts with, and it is probably installed on everyone’s machine. It’s light, free and more than capable of handling DSLR files as well as fits files from dedicated cameras. I love DSS as it is straight forward and simplistic, but perfectly functional.

Deep Sky Stacker is a robust and easy to use image stacker
  • AstroPixel Processor – As mentioned above, I love APP for its stacking functionality. It has multiple powerful tools for use with the stacking procedure and is especially good at calibrating out the amp glow or starburst glow that can be found on modern CMOS cameras. I bought APP to handle the files from my Altair 183c Camera. It has algorithms in it also that can separate the Oxygen-III data from the Ha data when using a dual/triple/quad bandpass narrowband filter also! Making it easier to create bi-colour images.

Polar Alignment

Polar Alignment cannot be overstated. It is the crux of all long exposure astrophotography when using an Equatorial style mount. Being aligned means having the Right Ascension axis of your mount pointed directly at the celestial pole – be it north or south depending on your hemisphere. It is what allows you to take exposures of longer than a minute. With good polar alignment, a good mount and guiding you can take sub exposures of 10 minutes or longer. There are several ways of achieving polar alignment.

  • Polar Scope – Most equatorial style telescope mounts such as the Skywatcher HEQ5, Celestron Advanced VX or iOptron CEM25 and so on feature a polar alignment scope. This is used in conjunction with phone apps or the celestial pole’s hour angle to align the mount.

  • Sharpcap Pro – As previously mentioned Sharpcap’s paid version, Pro, has a polar alignment routine built into it. It uses plate solving and your guide scope and camera to find out the distance from the pole and then gives directions and live data figures to show you how to make adjustments and then your error from the pole. A Sharpcap license is pretty affordable, and some buy an SC Pro license just for the polar alignment.

  • Electronic Polar Scopes – There are two main devices in this category now: the QHYCCD Pole Master and the iOptron iPolar. They sit in for your polar scope, and they use the camera to either give a live view and directions or plate solving to give instructions on how to polar align to the pole. They’re not cheap, but they’re quick and convenient. However as they’re cameras, they require a laptop connection, so not suitable if you’re using a portable rig without guidance or a laptop.

Planetarium Software

Planetariums are pieces of software that emulate and show you the night sky. They show you the stars, deep sky objects, solar system objects and so on. They give you coordinates, locations, constellations and so on. I’ve used two of them. Both are free, one is more function over form, and one is very pretty. They both can connect to the mount and control it as well.

  • StellariumThe great and legendary Stellarium is a completely free piece of software that is excellent at planning your night. You can see where the night sky is at any given time and date, what time things set and you can input your scope, eyepiece and camera details to see a field of view representation that I’ve found extremely accurate. It’s great for knowing what to expect when taking photos of space. It can connect to the mount, but it requires some fiddling.

Stellarium is pretty to use and functional. Inset: FoV Emulator.
  • Cartes du Ciel – Another free and excellent piece of software. It is very much function over form and is not at all as attractive as Stellarium. It’s more akin to looking at a star map, but it can connect to the mount right away and has tools to synchronize mount position to the map to do your star alignment routine. Can control the Go-To and is a great combination to use if you don’t want to use your hand controller.

Cartes du Ciel looks more akin to a Starmap but is very functional.

Computer Control

One benefit of using a Go-To mount and a laptop is being able to control the mount via the laptop. This is done by using special cables known as ‘EQDIR’ cables for the mount. In essence, the computer becomes the hand controller, and using what’s called an interface program, you can use the computer as full control – GoTo, guidance, plate solving and more.

As for the interface program, the most well known is called ‘Ascom‘. This is an open source bit of software that bridges the gap between your computer’s operating system and the mount’s operating system. This allows the computer to talk to the mount and tell it to do all that good stuff just mentioned. You’ll need Ascom before using the following two bits of software.

  • EQMOD This is probably the most well known and is what I began with when I had my older laptop. It’s open source, completely free and whilst it looks a bit complex at first it’s quite user friendly. I only stopped using it since it began timing out on my newer laptop.

  • SynScan Windows AppIf you have a Synta mount (Skywatcher) then you can use the SynScan program. It is, in effect, a complete replacement of the hand controller. It’s very lightweight, simple and has a nice form factor. I had to use this at one point because of the aforementioned EQMOD issues, and now I don’t look back. Note: You’ll need the Skywatcher SynScan specific ASCOM driver also.