How to build a flats panel for imaging

This easy way of taking flat frames will help your image processing.
 
Written by Steve Richards.
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Image Credit: 
Steve Richards
The finished panel allows you to take flat frames immediately after capturing your image data

To get the most from deep-sky image data, it is necessary to calibrate your subframes before stacking and processing them into a final image. There are three types of calibration that can be applied to your images: bias frames to remove signal noise caused by the action of downloading your data, dark frames to remove thermal noise produced when your sensor warms up and flat frames to remove the effects of vignetting and dust motes. Whereas bias and dark frames are simple to capture at any time, flat frames require careful planning and execution, so are often forgotten in the excitement of capturing new images.

A flat frame is a special image taken in such a manner that only a facsimile of the plain light cone passing through the telescope to the camera sensor is captured. A typical way of doing this is to cover the front of the telescope with a white cloth and take a series of images with the telescope pointing at the daytime sky. However, it is vital that the orientation of the camera and focus position are maintained between the capture of the celestial images and the flats, and therein lies the problem – you must not disturb the imaging train until the flats have been captured!
 
There is a fairly simple solution, though: you can use an electroluminescent panel to provide an evenly distributed light source to produce the illumination and capture your flats during an imaging session.
 
Electroluminescent panels comprise three components – the panel itself (a thin laminated plastic sheet), a 12V inverter that produces an alternating current in the 120V range and a 12V power source. The panels are available in a range of sizes from A6 to A1; choose one that is slightly larger than the aperture of your telescope to ensure complete coverage.

Securing your panel

Because electroluminescent panels tend to be a little flimsy it should be affixed to a backing board. The ideal material for this is the 4mm-thick corrugated plastic sheet often used for signboards as this material is very light, smoothly finished, moisture-proof and surprisingly strong. By applying masking tape to the rectangular shape of the electroluminescent panel (allowing 40mm over the panel length to comfortably support their notoriously fragile electrical connections) you can cut a very neat backing board to size. The panel can be attached to this backing board using double-sided adhesive tape.

As the electrical connections to these panels are so delicate, it is also worth making a loop in the cable near to where it enters the panel and securing this to the backing board with electrician’s tape to act as an emergency strain relief. The inverter module can be fixed to the rear of the backing board with double-sided adhesive tape to act as a ‘handle’ and ensure that no physical tension is applied to the interconnecting cable.
 
To capture worthwhile flat frames it is important to get the exposure right. Typically, this means achieving between 30 and 50 per cent of the full well capacity (saturation level) of the sensor elements. With a DSLR, this is easily achieved by setting it to aperture priority (Av) mode and letting it automatically choose the exposure time. Astronomical CCD users can use their capture software to determine the ADU (Analogue Digital Unit) value, which is a measure of the individual pixel values in a CCD image and should be in the range of 20,000 to 30,000 units.
 
You will need to capture 20 or so subframes, which then need to be stacked to produce a master flat frame using a median combine method. These should then be divided into each image frame to apply the calibration. Many stacking programs, including the freeware DeepSkyStacker, will do this calibration for you. You will be astonished at the improvement in your images.

Step by step

Step 1 - Measure the panel. Mark out the rough size on the plastic sheet in masking tape, adding 40mm to the length. Draw a precise outline (plus 40mm to the length) on the tape in pencil. This extra length will be used to support the panel’s electrical connections.

Step 2 - Cut out the rectangle from the plastic sheet. For the best results hold the blade vertically and make several shallow cuts rather than a single deep one. Also note that it is much easier to cut down the web of the sheet than across it.
 
Step 3 - Add a new strip of masking tape to mark the true length of electroluminescent panel, then remove all other tape. Clean the sheet and rear of the panel with methylated spirit. Once evaporated, apply double-sided tape around the perimeter and on the masking tape.
 
Step 4 - Apply a strip of double-sided tape to the panel’s electrical connection. Now fix the panel to the tape applied in Step 3, ensuring that the ‘pink’ side is uppermost. Form a small loop in the wiring and secure to the board with electrician’s tape. 
 
Step 5 - Turn the panel over and clean the rear of the sheet and the base of the inverter with methylated spirit. Once evaporated, apply double-sided tape to the base of the inverter module and fix it firmly to the back of the plastic sheet. 

 

Step 6 - Connect the inverter to the panel and power supply to turn it on. Hold the panel gently over the front of the telescope, ensuring that it is central over the aperture and capture a set of 20 exposures in readiness for producing a master flat to apply to your images.
 
Steve Richards is a keen astro imager and astronomy equipment expert

This How to originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

 

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