On the road: The Advanced Imaging Conference 2012, recap

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, October 29, 2012

Astronomy magazine Contributing Editor Tony Hallas kicks off the Advanced Imaging Conference 2012 with a talk on “Art and Astrophotography,” October 26, 2012. // all photos by David J. Eicher
One of the biggest events for those who love to capture images of the heavens is the Advanced Imaging Conference (AIC), a California meeting that has existed for the better part of a decade. Astronomy magazine is proud to be a sponsor of AIC, and I was honored this year to have been invited to speak. On Friday, October 26, AIC 2012 began at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Santa Clara, California, in the Silicon Valley, and some 300 amateur astronomers showed up to talk about imaging stars, planets, and galaxies. Before describing the conference events, I just want to say that I’ve been to many meetings in the 35 years I’ve been involved with amateur astronomy. The staff that puts on AIC does the most remarkable job of such a meeting as I’ve ever seen. It runs like a very smooth clock, with every last detail anticipated, planned, and well executed. It’s really quite amazing. President Ken Crawford, Vice President Jay GaBany, Treasurer Frank Barnes, Secretary Keith Allred, and Registrar Bob Fera all do an incredible job.

The first of the two major days of the conference is the educational day, if you will, with multiple workshop seminars scheduled throughout the day and given at several times so that attendees can catch several of the sessions. At my first day at AIC, I caught four long sessions that lasted from 8 a.m. past 5 p.m., with a lunch break in between. I was incredibly impressed with the level of detail given by the presenters and by the level of expertise of the meeting participants. These are largely serious, experienced amateur astronomers who have encyclopedic knowledge bases about the nuances of a fast-evolving, sophisticated world of telescopes, cameras, and image processing.

The spiral galaxy NGC 6946 blazes forth in an image shot by Tony Hallas and used in his AIC talk, October 26, 2012.
On Friday, the workshops included fabulous presentations by one of Astronomy’s contributing editors, Tony Hallas. Tony’s talk, “Art and Astrophotography,” attacked the problem of astroimaging from a novel direction. Rather than taking a snapshot, as we’re all inclined to do, Tony encourages astroimagers to slow down and to compose and think about shots as pieces of fine art. It’s a difficult challenge because astrophotography poses unique challenges: We have fixed focal lengths, can’t change the angle of view, we’re imaging a moving target, we need long exposures, we have targets with large dynamic ranges, focus is usually unstable, and we have problems with lots of noise in the data. Nonetheless, Tony argues, we should frame subject matter and think about rules of composition — the thirds rule, set up images with curves or arcs to drive the eye back to the upper left, use color to separate elements, avoid placing bright stars close to the edges of the frame, and use density and contrast well. It was an intriguing show.

One of Bob Fera’s many illustrations during his presentation at AIC depicts how to use Photoshop’s “Curves” and “Levels” functions, October 26, 2012.
I was also struck by the workshop put on by Ken Crawford, one of the organizers of AIC, who spoke about using masks in Photoshop. This is a specialized area, yes, but masking areas in the image-processing stage can lead to vastly improved images.

In the afternoon, Austrian astroimager Bernhard Hubl delivered an outstanding presentation about wide-field sky imaging. His tips were many: Introduce limits on seeing (shoot wider fields with increasingly poorer seeing), analyze and deal with your mount’s periodic error, neutralize backlash, and achieve critical focusing that can be adjusted throughout the night. His marvelous examples of many deep-sky objects included stunning fields of star clusters, dark nebulae, galaxies, and emission regions.

The final, long and detailed presentation on Friday afternoon was delivered by another organizer of AIC, longtime astrophotographer Bob Fera. His “ABCs of Image Processing” was an important, highly detailed, and lengthy analysis of the many major steps needed to take raw images and transform them into finished products, using a wide variety of products, mostly centered on CCDStack and Photohop. This was a whirlwind tour of numerous important tips for anyone wanting to get into this hobby.

Astroimager Adam Block (left) receives the AIC’s Hubble Award, Advanced Imaging Conference, October 27, 2012.
After Friday’s educational day of long seminars, Saturday was the normal day of talks. The morning session kicked off with the Hubble Award Lecture, a recognition of special contributions to the field of astroimaging. This year’s winner was Adam Block, who does such great service running the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter in Tucson, Arizona. Adam has introduced many dozens of people to astrophotography and has pioneered various outstanding techniques for processing images. His lecture outlined many of these techniques and showed some incredible images produced by Adam.

Other morning talks attacked varied subjects within the field. Alistair Symon delivered a great illustrated talk about wide-field imaging, outlining how he produced mosaics and stitched and processes them together into smoothly finished products showing large areas of sky. Travis Rector of the University of Alaska provided an excellent talk on his important techniques on creating presentation-quality digital images. What great photographs he showed, from a variety of professional instruments!

University of California-Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy delivered an outstanding lecture on the latest regarding Kepler’s search for extrasolar planets, AIC, October 27, 2012.
Following the lunch break, the audience was treated to a lecture by Geoff Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley. Geoff spoke about the latest results from the Kepler space telescope and its search for extrasolar planets, concentrating on the amazing systems Kepler 10b and Kepler 11. I then followed Geoff, delivering my talk, “35 years of amateur astronomy,” in which I looked back a generation, forward to the years to come, described Astronomy magazine and its brand, and talked about my past experiences and predictions about the future of amateur astronomy.

Three short sessions finished the afternoon. Tom Field made a pitch for amateur spectroscopy, a field that offers exciting and novel opportunities for imaging. NASA Picture of the Day founder Jerry Bonnell stood in for his friend Don Goldman — who couldn’t make it because his daughter gave birth this week — and a young, enthusiastic Florida amateur astronomer, Sal Grasso, delivered a superb talk on imaging from light-polluted environments.

What a great day it was! We had a wonderful, huge dinner with nearly 300 scrambling for the buffet food, and repaired to the vendor area into the midevening to talk about all facets of astronomy. Ken Crawford, Tony Hallas, Rod Pommier, John Briggs, Rick Hedrick, and many others made for an entertaining day in which we seemed to solve al the world’s problems and relived many funny stories from the past.

Suffice it to say that the appetite for capturing the stars in images is in a very healthy state.

Be sure to check out all of my photos from the Advanced Imaging Conference in the "Trips and tours" area of the Reader Photo Gallery.

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