Feb 27, 2013

A Crash Course On PixInsight

Have You Lost Your Mind?

If you've mentioned to any of your astro-imaging colleagues that you're interested in PixInsight that was probably the nicest response that you received. For a long time in the astrophoto game, a combination of some pre-processing software (Astro-Art, MaximDL, CCDSoft, Nebulosity) and PhotoShop were the only game in town when it came to producing nice astrophotos.  Though it's been around for significantly longer than that, the PixInsight platform has started to make some buzz in the last couple of years and has gained a lot of die hard converts - myself included.  With it's increasingly common use and mention on The Internets, PixInsight is becoming a regular topic of conversation among new and experienced astro-imagers.  It seems to me that there's some amount of uninformed opinion and outright disinformation whenever PixInsight is the topic.  Message boards are littered with a standard litany of responses whenever the topic is brought up:
  • "It's too hard."
  • "There's no documentation."
  • "You have to be a programmer to use it."
  • "It doesn't have layers so it can't be used to process an astrophoto."
  • "It's impossible to learn.  I can't find any help online."
These statements are all patently false.  The only one that is partially true is the claim of no documentation.  There is some documentation within the application.  The processes that are documented are an absolute encyclopedia of the process being covered.  However, not all processes are documented and therein lies my one complaint.  Like others, I wish they'd finish the documentation.  The rest of it though - false.  So in this installment I'm going to save you the trouble of using The Google to figure out how to use PixInsight.

How I learned PixInsight

It's stupidly easy how I learned to use PixInsight.  First, I downloaded it and installed it after getting a license for a 45 day trial.  I took one of my own images, and I went to Harry's Astro Shed and I simply went through all of the newbie videos one at a time until I had completed an image.  It was that simple.  I'd pause the video and apply it to my own image and then continue moving forward.  Over the course of a couple of hours I got introduced to all the major processes and the "correct" order that they should be used.  Here's the first image that I completed with PixInsight entirely by just walking through Harry's videos with him one time.
My first PixInsight image.  It's not my best work ever, but going through the process showed me immediately that this is a software package with awesome power and potential.  This was shot with a QHY8PRO one shot color CCD and a 127mm refractor.
If you'd like the same result, just do what I did.  Here's some pointers to make the learning curve a little easier.
  • The first rule of PixInsight is "It's not Photoshop"
  • The second rule of PixInsight is "IT IS NOT PHOTOSHOP!"
  • Watch each video.  The entire video.  Pause it.  Play with the controls in PI yourself.  Restart it.  Repeat.
  • Expect that you're going to have to stop and truly learn something.  It's true that if you just start it and click the mouse at random points on the screen expecting APOD worthy results you will be disappointed with the outcome.
After that, I started to look for additional resources.  There are plenty.  I studied them and tried to learn from them.  When I had a question, I asked on the PI forums which are frequented by pretty much the entire development team.  Juan Conejero's responses in a lot of the messages have a tendency to turn into mini-tutorials and lessons in image processing theory.  Which is to say - They're awesome!!

Other General Resources

Harry's Astro Shed: It should go without saying to have a look at Harry's Advanced Videos.  They dig deeper into some of the other processes that'll really help you dress up your images. 
Rogelio Bernal Andreo's Orion mosaic is one of
my favorite PixInsight processed images.  Check
out his other stuff at www.deepskycolors.com
Warren Keller's IP4AP:  Warren recently produced a series of tutorials on PixInsight with the assistance of PixInsight user Rogelio Bernal Andreo.  There are some free ones there too so that you can get a feel for them.  I haven't seen them myself, but I have been through Warren's series on Photoshop and I can tell you he puts together an excellent, useable set of tutorials to help you get started.  A second set of more advanced tutorials is in the works as I write this.

PixInsight.com: Crazy, right?  The PixInsight website has tutorials?  You're kidding me.  They are there including those for older versions that are still useful to help you get the chi of the PI platform.  Go to http://pixinsight.com/ and look under Resources on the right side of the page.

PixInsight Documentation:  Yes, much of it isn't there, but the documentation that is there is mindblowingly good.  Read the documentation on image registration and you will learn more than you ever wanted to know about how the software actually goes about matching up the stars to stack a set of images.    

In the Months to Come...

It's my goal to start bringing a little PI help to these pages too by covering some bite sized pieces of it as I unveil new images.  I'm in the process of locating my imaging rig at a remote site that should allow me to do a lot more imaging than I've been able in the last few months.  So I'm hoping that 2013 brings a lot more imaging time and lot more of me trying to give a little something back to this incredible hobby.

It was this image by Manuel Jimenez that made me take a serious look at the PixInsight
platform.  See his other amazing work at www.manuelj.com.  He also a nice tutorial on
deconvolution in PixInsight.