Signal and Noise

What makes it possible to be able to generate a photo of the Milkyway from what appears to be just a faint trace in the original shot?

The final image (left) and a single frame as obtained from the camera (right)

It all comes down to the signal vs noise. Whenever we record something, sound, motion, photons, etc… there is always the information you WANT to record (the signal) and various sources of noise.

Noise can have many sources:

  • background noise (light polution, a bright moon, sky glow, etc…)
  • electronic noise (sensor readout, amp glow, hot pixels)
  • sampling noise (quantization, randomized errors)

This noise can be random or steady/periodic in nature. A steady or periodic noise is easy to filter out as it can be identified and isolated because it will be the same in all the photos. However a random noise is more difficult to eliminate due to the random nature. This is where he signal to noise ratio becomes important.

In astrophotography we take not only the photos of the sky, but also bias, darks and flat frames: this is to isolate the various sources of noise. A bias shot is a short exposure to capture the electronic read-out noise of the sensor and electronics. The darks is a long exposure at the same setting as the astronomy photo to capture noise that appears during long exposures due to the sensor characteristics such as hot pixels and amplifier glow. Cooling the sensor is one way to reduce this noise, but that is not always possible. Finally the flat photo is taken to identify the optical noise caused by the characteristics of the lens or mirror as well as any dust that happens to be in the way.

But what can be done about random noise? That is where increasing the number of samples has a large impact. For a random noise, increasing the number of sample points improves the signal to noise ratio by the square root of the number of samples. Hence averaging 4 images will be 2 times improvement than a single photo. Going to 9 will be 3 times better. Etc…

You might be thinking: “Yeah but you are averaging, so the signal is still the same strength.” That is correct, however because my signal to noise ratio is improved I can be much more aggressive on how the image is processed. I can boost the levels that much more before the noise becomes a distraction.

But can’t I just simply duplicate my image and add them together? No that won’t work because we want the noise to be random, and if you duplicate your image, the noise is identical in both.

So even if you are limited to just taking 30-second, even 5-second shots of the night sky and can barely make out what you want to photogram, don’t despair, just take LOTS of them and you’ll be surprised what can come out of your photos.

Milkyway from a stacking of 8 x 20 second photos.

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