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Why I No Longer Use Film - or why I switched to the digital world

By Tim Hunter
 

Introduction – Astrophotography versus Common Sense

Astrophotography defies common sense. For much less money and effort, you can enjoy better results in books, popular magazines, and on the web. However, many years ago I crossed that bridge, and there is no going back. Astrophotography is challenging. It requires time, effort, and considerable luck to produce a good picture. Therefore, I would never criticize the work of another. I enjoy any effort to capture the splendor of the night sky. There is beauty in every picture of the Heavens no matter how ineptly it was taken:
 

M20?

Prime focus image of M20(?) with Ektachrome 400 film and a Celestron C-8 telescope. Ten minute exposure. T. Hunter circa 1983.
 

The Past

I have been an amateur astronomer since 1950, and astrophotography has undergone a revolution since the 1950’s and 1960’s when I grew up. In those days, most photography and all astrophotography was with black and white film. Color astrophotography did not exist.

One of my astrophotography heroes was Dr. Clarence Custer* whose superb black & white images graced many a page and centerfold in Sky & Telescope. One of his all time best images is the montage of the Great Andromeda Galaxy (M31) published as a centerfold in Sky & Telescope in May 1958 (Custer, 1958):
 


 M31

Scanning and reproduction of Dr. Custer’s image in this essay can not do the original publication justice. He used the prime focus of a homemade 12 ½ -inch Newtonian telescope to compose this montage, which consists of three 90-minute exposures on Eastman 103a-o plates. Extensive darkroom manipulation was performed to hide the montage lines. Walter Baade estimated the limiting magnitude of this set of images as 17.5. Modern CCD cameras and commercial telescopes available to the amateur astronomer can easily exceed this magnitude limit with very short exposures (Hunter, 2004):

M67

M67. 60-second exposure with an Apogee KX260 CCD camera at the prime focus of a Meade LX 200-12-inch telescope. The limiting magnitude is approximately 18. T. Hunter

 

In my opinion, black & white astrophotography reached its peak with the publication of Mallas and Kreimer’s classic work The Messier Album (Mallas and Kreimer, 1978). The pictures of the Messier Objects by Kreimer are the standard for which even modern CCD imaging has a hard time meeting. Kreimer’s pictures were lengthy exposures taken with painstaking effort, and their printing involved extensive darkroom work. He used Kodak Tri-X film with an ISO speed of 400.

I first tried astrophotography in the late 1950’s, and the results were terrible. I could not build or purchase a telescope with a good enough drive to track on the sky for long exposures through the telescope at its main focal point (prime focus). My first successful ventures included a picture of the Echo I satellite in 1962 and an aurora picture published in Sky & Telescope in 1961 (Hunter, 1961):

Echo I satellite

Echo I Satellite, July 21, 1962, 11:50 EST. Kodak Tri-X film, 5-minute exposure with a Brownie Hawkeye Camera (45 mm f/2.8). T. Hunter

 

Aurora

Aurora, 1961. T.Hunter

 

These and other subsequent successful images involved time exposures with a cheap 35mm camera mounted on a tripod. I used the fastest film available at that time, Kodak Tri-X, roughly equivalent to an ISO speed of 400 by today’s standards. I also used the built in camera lens (focal length ~ 50 mm).

Successful professional color astrophotography did not take place until 1959 when Super Anscochrome was introduced (Miller 1959; Carpenter 1959) . The first amateur color astrophotography pictures were published in Sky & Telescope in 1963 and 1964:

 

Cover of Sky and Telescope

Cover of Sky & Telescope August 1963.

 

Cover of Sky and Telescope

Cover of Sky & Telescope December 1964

 

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I was quite fortunate to meet Dr. Custer in 1986, and he was kind enough to give me an original print of his montage which I framed and now proudly display in my den.

 

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