Sunday, November 04, 2007


The Other Half of the Webcam Revolution

I’ve been thinking about webcams a lot lately. Mainly because, I guess, of that Cuh-razy Comet Holmes, which I’ve been imaging with my li’l NexImage and my SAC7b. Also, Mars is coming back into the sky in a big way as another opposition approaches, and there is no better way to capture detail on that world—or any other world in the Solar System—than with a webcam. That got me reminiscing about the short history of webcams in astronomy, and, naturally, ruminating on what’s and who’s been responsible for the incredible changes they’ve rung-in for amateur Solar System work.

Sure, a large part of the reason webcams have caused such a revolution in amateur Solar System imaging is the efforts of dedicated hardware tinkerers like Steve Chambers (he of the “SC” long-exposure mod you’ve heard tell about), and the good folks over at the QCUIAG—Quick Cam and Unconventional Imaging Astronomy Group. Them dudes and dudettes who about a decade ago started wondering if the little “teleconferencing” cameras that were initially and ostensibly sold to enable online business meetings (but which proved more popular with the masses for less family friendly purposes) could be used to image the heavens. Yep, they deserve a lot of credit for the fact that amateur planetary images today are several orders of magnitude better than the amateur (and ground-based professional) Solar System pix of ten years ago.

The fact is, however, at least half the credit goes to the software side of the house. Unless you want to take deep sky images with a webcam, hardware-wise one can be used purty-much off the shelf (well, you’ll have to dispose of that itty-bitty lens and the lousy integral IR block filter, but that’s about it). What really made webcams a success was the software, most of it freeware, that your fellow amateurs began developing.

When most of y’all think of “webcam programs,” I have no doubt one name comes to mind, “Registax.” Cor Berrevoet’s insanely effective FREEWARE image stacking program certainly deserves a lot of kudos. His “wavelet” filters have allowed many of us to “see” more of the Sun’s little family than we ever dreamed possible. Cor’s program does a lot. One thing it doesn’t do, though, is take pictures. It stacks frames and it processes ‘em (and how), but it doesn’t have any facilities for controlling cameras and acquiring .avi sequences (the little computer movies produced by webcams).

Initially, webcam imagers just used the software that came with their Toucams and Quickcams. That worked—I went that route myself for quite a while—but what’s fine for flibbertigibbets playing “I’ll show you mine, you show me yours” over the I-net really is not optimum for astrophotographers. Focus and exposure were more guess-and-try than anything else, and most everything had to be done manually. Want a 90 second sequence of frames of Jupiter? Press the start button and look at your watch. That was the way it was until, finally, the Registax of camera control programs hit the scene: Peter Katriniak’s K3CCD Tools.

It actually seems unfair to call Peter’s app “just” a webcam control program. Amongst other things, it features:

  • A level meter that allows accurate and repeatable setting of focus and exposure.
  • A polar alignment utility.
  • Autoguiding capability via webcams and other video-type cameras.
  • Periodic error analysis.
  • Long exposures with DSLRs.
  • Sequence capture timer.
And tons more stuff, including extensive image stacking and processing tools. Yes, most of us prefer Registax 4 for frame stacking and image processing, but most of us, could, frankly, get along quite well with K3CCD Tools alone.

Which cameras will K3 work with? One of the best features of the program is its long and ever expanding list of supported sensors. These include not only webcams and long exposure modified webcams, but also the Meade DSI and LPI, the ATIK cameras, DSLRs, video cameras via capture cards, digital 8 and DV cameras, firewire cameras, the Lumenera “super webcams,” and more.

How mucho? The program began as freeware/shareware, but it’s nice to see Peter reaping at least a little bit of a return for all his hard and continuing work. While, to his credit, he still maintains a freeware version, K3CCD Tools 1, the version most serious imagers will want is the feature-laden K3CCD Tools 3, which can be had (via Paypal) for a very reasonable $49.99. By the way, both versions of K3CCD Tools are currently “Windows only,” I’m afraid.

In addition to putting in month after month and year after year of program development, Peter also runs a Yahoogroup for the program and is frequently there himself to answer questions and give advice. Bottom line for me? K3CCD as much as Registax has been what’s kept me fiddling around with my silly little cameras and—sometimes—standing open-mouthed in amazement when my final images appear on the monitor screen.

Hey! Since when has your ol’ Uncle steered you wrong about astro-ware? If you fool with webcams, just go get K3CCD, OK? OK!

Stars are closer for you, when you've got a webcam :) I have a webcam
can I use it to 'touch' the moon? :)
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