ASTROPHOTOGRAPHY: Using Film and Digital Media

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FILM


above: The photo above was taken 12 July 1999 at Lake Hudson State Park, Michigan, USA. It's a 40 second exposure of the Milky Way centered on Sagittarius. See this table for approximate maximum exposure times for unguided film-based imaging.

above: Star trails at Hudson Lake State Park, Michigan, USA, Sept. 1997

above: Pleaides star cluster; photo taken in Michigan near Pioneer, Ohio, Sept. 1997

above: Orion rising out of the east; photo taken near Pioneer, Ohio

above: star trails centered on Polaris (North Star); photo taken 12 August 1997 in Michigan near Oakshade, Ohio   

These above images the best shots out of a few dozen I took in the summer of 1997 and 1999. For all photos, I just used a 35mm camera with a 50mm lens. Film used was the Fuji SuperHG-800. Camera used was the Pentax ME-Super with a matching Pentax 50mm lens. Although the equipment I am currently using is limited, I find that the single greatest factor working against me is the local weather. NW Ohio and S-SE Michigan is a moisture-ridden area due to nearby Lake Erie and the local weather patterns. Finding a clear, moonless night is often hard to come by. The shots above were taken 80km (50mi) West or North-West of my residence in Toledo. Light pollution is still very evident in these shots despite countryside locations and image processing (Adobe PhotoShop 4.0).         

What camera should I use -- and where can I get it?

As of this writing, (fall 2004) the best price/performance option is still a used, manual 35mm film camera. I have several but prefer Olympus OM 1 or OM 2 (or OM 2N) models -- mostly due to the excellent Zuiko lens system. I've also had very good experience with Pentax ME and ME Super. All my cameras and lenses were purchased at eBay. Use the search box below, entering the models noted above. (Please note: Used camera merchants rate and price camera based highly on its cosmetic condition rather than its electrical/mechanical functionality. You don't have to get a pretty, "mint"-condition camera. If it has a few dings and scratches, that's just fine. Just make sure the merchant specifically notes that it is in good operating condition; if this is not stated, contact the merchant for specifics -- eBay makes this easy to do).

What about film?

Fujicolor Superia X-TRA 800 is a tried-and-true film for basic astrophotography; it used to be called "SG+ 800" and was highly praised in astronomy magazines such as Sky & Telescopes and Astronomy. This web site has some information about Superia (and other films) including this statement: "Nonetheless, the Fuji Superia films are probably the best color negative films for astrophotography that are presently available."

Use the information on our Data for Astrophotographer's page to plan and time your shots.

For more info or advanced astrophotography, please use the information on these sites:

What else is should be considered essential in a basic amateur astrophotography toolkit?

DIGITAL

In Feb 2004, I moved to Los Angeles, California. Vacationing at Laurel Mill Lodge in the Redwoods of Santa Cruz mountains (Loma Prieta region) in late June and early July 2004, I experimented with a relatively inexpensive (and ill-suited-for-the-purpose) digital camera: a 4.0 MP Canon A85. The slowest allowable shutter speed is 15 seconds, which is about 1/2 of what I used for film-based unguided shots. But film isn't digital. The weather of the area is supposed to be clear and dry. Around 3 am, the marine layer comes in (over-casting everything) until late morning, when it burns off. During my 6-day stay, however, the weather was unusually cloudy: i.e. the nights were overcast or hazy. The few clear nights were very clear, apart from the light pollution from nearby by San Jose, Santa Cruz and the Oakland/San Francisco bay area 50 miles to the north.

Here are two shots taken from the lodge.

Lyra at Zenith

Lyra at Zenith. It's hard to tell from this image, but the pitch-black area on the left-hand side and upper right-hand corner are trees.

Scorpius in the South, Los Gatos, California

Weather was poor in this image of Scorpius. The clouds were also illuminated by the Moon.

M31 in Andromeda
(above) Andromeda at Zenith 20040726-1: Wow! The galaxy became visible after only 15 second exposure in shot on an inexpensive digital camera. This picture was taken at Topanga State Park, 12 miles (19 kilometers) North-West of downtown Los Angeles.

Additional processing done in Jasc PaintShop Pro 8 and/or Adobe Photo Elements 2.0.

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