Thursday, May 15, 2008

Shoot the moon II: Getting the most out of your binoculars

Part the First: Mount Up

The biggest pain in the butt about binoculars is that they shake. Or rather we do, no matter how we may try not to. If you can get rid of the shakes, using binoculars is awesome. But it ain't easy. Up until now I have done one of two things: steadied my binoculars against a nearby fence or wall, or steadied them against a monopod but without having them actually attached, just using the monopod as a sort of primitive mobile fencepost. But recently I came up with a better solution: I built a budget binocular bracket.

Lots of astronomy equipment companies sell dedicated binocular brackets, for mounting binoculars to monopods or tripods. The current issue of Sky & Telescope has a review of a premium model that costs $70. That's more than double the cost of my best pair of binoculars! Even the budget model from Orion costs $30.

Well, bump that. You can build your own for about $5. Go to the hardware store and pick up a steel angle bracket like the one shown in the photo above, some 1/4-20 nuts, and a 1-inch-long 1/4-20 thumbscrew. One of the holes in the bracket will fit over the 1/4-20 bolt on your monopod or tripod. Put on a nut and tighten 'er down. I used needle-nose pliers to get in there and get that nut nice and tight--you don't want your binoculars swinging in the breeze, no matter how cheap they were. Put a couple of nuts on the thumbscrew before you put it through the bracket--these act as spacers and keep the flat end of the thumbscrew from bumping up against the bracket when you tighten the rig. Then stick the thumbscrew through the bracket and screw it into the socket on the front of your binoculars. If the thumbscrew reaches the end of the socket before it's tight, pull it out and slip on one more nut as another spacer--that's what I had to do, and in the photo above you can just see the edge of the nut peeking out between the bracket and the socket on the binoculars.

Bang, you're done. Point the binoculars at something interesting and enjoy a completely shake-free view. I like running them up on my camera tripod and observing the moon without having to touch anything at all. I'm telling you, it's a qualitatively different experience from any binocular observing you've ever done in the past. And not just of astronomical targets--it's good for birds, landscapes, sunsets, your perverted neighbors, whatever.

And it's damn near free. If you use binoculars at all and own a tripod, there's no reason not to build one of these. And my tripod is not fancy--it's the absolute cheapest full-size model that Wal-Mart has to offer. It shakes and wobbles like crazy with a telescope on top, but it's plenty sturdy for a pair of binoculars or a camera.

Part the Second: Absolute basics of image processing

This is, no lie, the un-fiddled-with raw photo of the moon that I took through my Celestron 10x50 UpClose binoculars tonight. Well, okay, not completely un-fiddled-with. I did rotate and crop the image to get the moon in the middle and get rid of most of the empty field. But I didn't mess with any color or sharpness settings, so the moon itself is exactly as it came out of the camera.

I don't like to brag, but I was freaking amazed that I could get a picture that sharp using just binoculars. The 10x50s are quite a bit better than the Tasco 7x35s I used for my last attempt, but still. The image quality of the mounted binoculars is not far behind that of a small telescope, either visually or photographically (proof--compare these pictures to this one). The one advantage of even a small scope is that you can crank up the magnification if you want to see, for example, the rings of Saturn. On the other hand, binoculars are cheaper, lighter, easier to set up, and grab a lot more sky--all the reasons amateur astronomers use them in the first place.

Anyway, this part isn't about the binoculars. It's about what to do once you get a picture.

First thing, seriously, always, is Unsharp Mask. It looks like a gimmick but it's not. It can be overdone, like almost anything, but you should be able to play around with the settings minimally and find something that works. And it's available in just about every serious image processing program out there, including Photoshop and GIMP (the latter is free, BTW). The only difference between the photo immediately above and the one at the top of this section is that I applied Unsharp Mask in GIMP, using the default settings.

You'll notice some distracting color in both of the above images. The north edge of the moon is outlined in blue haze, and the southern end is an unwholesome-looking yellowish brown. That's chromatic aberration, and it's an unavoidable consequence of refracting light through glass. For telescopes you can buy anti-fringing filters, or super- or hyper-expensive apochromatic telescopes that use special kinds of glass to minimize CA, but even the best only knock it down to below the threshold of perception. It's impossible to completely get rid of. Physics is like that sometimes.

Let me amend that. It's impossible to completely get rid of in optical trains with refracting elements. A major advantage of reflecting telescopes is that they collect light with mirrors rather than lenses, so their views are blessedly free of CA.

Interestingly, I've never seen any CA on the moon through binoculars, and I've looked for it. Possibly the weak signal of color falling on my cones is just blown out by the intensity of light falling on my rods. Whatever the explanation, in my experience it is a strictly photographic problem.

This won't work for everything, but the moon is basically black and white in real life so it doesn't look weird if you convert the image to grayscale, as I've done here. And that's all I did--I didn't try to erase the dim halo around the northern regions, for example. It was always dim, and it only grabbed the eye because it was blue. Convert it to dark gray and it just disappears.

One last trick. I nudged up the contrast a little. It's really easy to overdo this, but if it's done right it certainly makes for a more interesting and pleasing image. The main problem with doing this on anything but a full moon is that the area near the terminator--the day/night line, where the lit part of the moon meets the unlit--drops off into blackness, and if you make the blacks blacker, the terminator appears to shift. Suddenly instead of describing a gentle curve or line from pole to pole, it zigs and zags as bright craters and dark maria pull it first one way and then the other. Which makes the photo look fake, because the real moon just doesn't look like that.

But there's an easy fix. Copy the image and paste it into a new layer. Bump up the contrast on that layer, and watch the terminator move. Once the contrast on everything else looks good, grab a big fuzzy eraser and erase the parts that got blackened out. The normally-lit terminator in the original image shows through. Flatten and save. You're done.

And so am I (UPDATE: no I'm not. Keep reading). Like I said, this is the bare bones of image processing. There's lots more here, and in many other places on the web. Have fun!


Hoo boy, what a dumbass I am. The picture above is actually how not to do contrast. I screwed up bigtime, but I'm leaving it in as a teaching tool. There are two big problems with that image, and somehow my poor addled brain didn't catch them until this morning. The first is that I only grabbed part of the image when I copied and pasted, so there is a distinct black box from the contrasty layer visible against the skyglow from the original background. Lesson 1: copy the entire image into the layer you're going to mess with. The second problem is that I colored outside the lines with the eraser, so next to the terminator there is a weird light-colored strip like a fuzzy caterpillar (if you can't see this, try tilting your monitor so the image looks lighter. Lesson 2: if you're going to up the contrast and then erase some of the contrasty layer, you have to be careful not to get off of your foreground target or the brighter background will show through. Both problems are fixed in this version:

I'd like to be able to say that I planned this little goof/save in advance, but I didn't. Just shouldn't process images in a dark room or blog when I'm tired. Sheesh. Keeps me humble.

Now I'm going to take Mike's advice and get back to work. No sarcastic commentary needed.

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