John D. UptonMarch 27, 2018
Windows 10 has added features that are quite helpful for use in the field at night while enjoying astronomy. This article describes how to customize Windows 10 so that all of your astronomy software applications can be used in deep red "Night Vision Mode". No special hardware or software is required. Just customize Windows 10 settings and enjoy benefits similar to using Rubylith or other dark red filter over your screen -- all without the filter.
While many do not like using Windows, it has nearly become a requirement in astronomy, and astrophotography in particular. Windows 10 now has display settings options that should be of interest to astrophotographers. I purchased a new laptop for imaging back in December 2017 that had Windows 10 installed. It was my first introduction to Windows 10. As it is for many, it was unfamiliar territory coming from Windows 7 and Windows 8. Digging beneath the multitude of re-scrambled and misplaced (?) user interface settings proved to be worthwhile. I discovered features that were actually a big step up from my use of previous versions of Windows.
I used to use overlay films of different types to make my screen red while imaging. While some / many astronomy software programs implement a Night Vision Mode, some don't and sometimes we use software tools while imaging that don't have such a mode (or don't support the system settings pushed out by other programs that do). Hence arises the need to use Rubylith, Red Acetate, and other physical screens to cut back on any non-red lighting coming from the laptop.
While poking around in Windows 10, I found that you can configure it do a much better job than any external screens I have seen to date. I found that several of the display settings features could be combined to make the laptop much more useful and friendly for astrophotography. After playing around for several days, I stumbled upon a combination of settings every bit as good as using Rubylith over the screen. The final effect using only native Windows 10 settings is as good as any astronomy program's Night Vision Mode. I now no longer use any external device or software program for implementing Night Vision Mode. I can switch to a Windows mode which puts ALL software into Night Vision Mode. Below is a screenshot of my laptop screen using this mode.
I was amazed at how good this looked when I started playing with it. It was actually more effective and dimmer than the Rubylith I used to use on my previous imaging laptop. It also doesn't interfere with the view of the screen. I always had some trouble reading small fonts through the Rubylith as they became blurred slightly.
The photo is cropped to show the only a portion of the screen. I am running Sequence Generator Pro, and PHD2 Guiding in this shot. None of the software is in Night Vision Mode. Only pre-configured Windows 10 settings are used for this deep red night vision effect.
To set up this mode, I created a Windows Theme which used a plain black background. I then added a custom High Contrast Theme to Windows and set the custom desktop theme to use that. Next I configured the Windows 10 Night Light mode to use the lowest color temperature available. Finally, I turned on the Night Light mode in the Windows 10 Notification / Control sidebar. To put finishing touches on the configuration for ease of use, I created two shortcuts -- one sets the custom Night Vision Mode for imaging and the other restores my default custom theme for normal laptop use. In use, I click on the Imaging Theme shortcut at the beginning of the imaging session, turn on the Night Light mode and image away. At the end of the night, I click on the Normal Theme shortcut, turn off Night Light mode and I am back to using a typical daytime laptop.
I will note that this works best on laptops that use an IPS screen. Non-IPS screens tend to scatter white light sideways and may in some cases still need a physical barrier for spewed back-lighting that escapes towards the sides of the display. Such is not the case when this technique is used on an IPS screen.
The key advantage here for me is that any software you use while set up for imaging is in the stealth Night Vision Mode already. You don't need to turn on any such mode in any of the applications you are running. (In fact, I think it's better to leave them all in their normal operating mode when using this technique.) It is fun and a little unusual to see and use things like PixInsight in Night Vision Mode. I sometimes have it open to check star profiles and get noise estimates and such while imaging. Using Windows 10 to implement the Night Vision Mode makes that (and more) possible.
The following is a tutorial style article that should allow you to set this up on your own Windows 10 laptop.
The first thing we will do is to personalize the Windows 10 Night Light setup. This will be used along with the theme settings we will create to make the Night Vision Mode as deep red as possible.
Next we will create the high contrast theme which is used for our Night Vision Mode. This will involve setting up a plain dark background, modifying the Windows 10 window frame colors, and configuring a new palette of high contrast colors for our windows.
Now might be a good time to save a default personalized Windows Theme if you are still using one the Windows defaults. Make some change to your existing theme such as changing the Desktop Background image or window frame color scheme and then click the Save Theme button. Having saved a custom theme makes it much easier to restore your overall Windows Theme when you exit from the Night Vision Mode we will create.
The creation of the Windows 10 Night Vision theme is now complete. You should be left with a Settings window that appears very similar to Figure 11 below. If you would like to see what the new theme looks like, move your cursor to the bottom right of the task bar and bring up the Windows 10 Notification and Control side panel. In the tools shown in the panel, click on Night Light to turn it on. (I show the control here with a yellow box around it for visibility.
Once the Night Light is turned on, the whole display should go into Night Vision Mode. All windows should appear very red with no overly bright elements. To turn off the Night Light, and return everything to the high contrast mode we created, click on the Night Light button in the Notification area again.
We now need to edit the newly created theme file to manually change two colors.
Now that we have a functioning high contrast palette to use for our Night Vision Mode, we need to create a couple of shortcuts to make it easy to get into and out of the mode. The CN_Win10_Night_Vision theme we created is stored in the AppData directory under your default user area. In addition, any normal theme you have created before should also be stored there. The theme files have an extension of ".theme". Let's now create some shortcuts to our normal and Night Vision themes. (Note that the AppData folder we will be visiting is a normally hidden folder. You may need to go into the Tools area of the windows file manager and turn on the option to show hidden files.)
(Note that some areas or folders may not allow you to paste a shortcut. In those cases, you will get a message saying "you cannot create a shortcut here". I created a new folder elsewhere on my system and put the shortcuts in it. I then added that folder to my Start Menu under a custom "Imaging Tools" section which also links to all my software that I use while imaging.) Repeat the Copy and Paste Shortcut steps for the saved theme you will use for imaging.
Once the two shortcuts are created, you are ready for image. At the start of a session, first double click on the shortcut for your Night Vision Mode. Next, go to the Windows Notification area and turn on the Night Light. All applications running on the computer should now look like they are in Night Vision mode. At the end of the imaging session reverse the process. Turn off the Night Light in the Notification area and then double click on the normal default daytime theme shortcut. You are back to normal.
If you need to temporarily look at anything on the screen in normal colors, you can simply turn off the Night Light for a few seconds and then turn it back on. This becomes the equivalent of lifting up the Rubylith screen for a quick peek at the laptop.
The color settings described above are likely not completely optimal. I settled on these after a few days of experimentation. Feel free to experiment on your own with changing the colors in the High Contrast Theme settings. Be sure to turn on the Night Light as you play with new colors as they will look very different and what appears to be a good color may become invisible in Night Light mode.
One other piece of the overall imaging puzzle is that I also created three new Power Plans for use on the laptop. I now have an "Imaging Setup" plan, an "Image Capture" plan, and an "Image Processing" plan. They are each customized for their respective use.
The image Capture plan reduces power consumption and screen brightness as low as possible. It also allows me to close the lid and keep on imaging. The Image Setup plan uses slightly higher screen brightness but allows sleep mode when the lid is closed. Image Processing mode sets the brightness for normal room usage and mostly pulls out all the stops for highest CPU performance.
Between the Night Vision Mode and my Image Capture power plan, the (otherwise very powerful) laptop draws only about 5 to 7 watts and doesn't need any light shields or red screen overlays for star party usage with other imagers around.
Windows 10 has added some useful tools that can aid the astrophotographer. Experiment a bit. I think I have only scratched the surface in terms of adapting my laptop for low power, low light usage.
If any errors or omissions are noted, please feel free to email me by clicking on my name at the bottom of the page.
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