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A Photographic Messier Marathon: March 19-20, 1988


By Tim Hunter and Dan Knauss

Messier Marathons have become popular in the last 10-15 years. Near the time of the spring equinox it is possible for an experienced observer to view all the Messier objects in one night. We wondered for some time how many Messier objects could be photographed in one evening with one telescope. Accordingly, we set out to do a photographic Messier Marathon. Our rules were simple. To count as a genuine photograph of a Messier object, images on standard 3.5 x 5-inch prints or on contact prints of the negative sheet had to be easily recognizable as being the Messier object claimed when compared to the photographs in the Messier Album by Mallas and Kreimer.

In early March 1988, two weeks before attempting the photographic marathon, we initiated a thorough review of the objects and their locations, studying star charts, pictures, and written descriptions of them. A field notebook was prepared containing a list of all the Messier objects, their size, type, and estimated magnitude, as well as their coordinates (2000). The list was arranged in object viewing order using a sequence originally suggested by Wally Brown of Phoenix. A list of 20 bright stars (Sirius, Riegel, et cetera) and their coordinates was also drawn up to be used for periodic calibration of our telescope's setting circles throughout the night. This effort took place in 1988 prior to computerized star atlases and digital setting circles.


The 24-inch f/5 Newtonian reflector at the Grasslands Observatory in Southeastern Arizona was used for the marathon. The observatory is located at a superb 5000 foot altitude dark-sky site. The pictures were taken through an Olympus OM1 camera at the telescope’s Newtonian focus. Because the telescope is well aligned and has an excellent drive, no guiding was done. The camera’s horizontal axis was generally aligned in the east-west direction, and the camera was critically focused with a magnifier each time we changed a roll of film. For all the exposures, we used hypersensitized Konica SR-V 3200 film. The objects were initially found either by visual sighting through the telescope’s five-inch f/5 refractor finder, or by using the telescope’s large setting circles. The setting circles were especially needed for speed and accuracy when acquiring objects in the Virgo and Coma Berenices regions. Mallas and Kreimer’s book proved invaluable and was frequently consulted during the night’s efforts. The exposure times ran from one minute for bright open clusters to two minutes for globular clusters and 3 minutes for galaxies, nebulae, and planetaries.

It was a two-man operation all the way. One person would find the object in the finder or align the setting circles and keep a log of the time, object, exposure number, and exposure length. The other person would climb the fourteen foot viewing ladder, use the telescope to acquire the object in the camera’s field of view, and take the exposure. We frequently traded off jobs during the night.


In astrophotography nothing ever goes right the first time. Knowing this, we had trial run on the night of Friday March 18, 1988 to practice our techniques and to get the bugs out of the system. It was most fortunate we did this, because we committed a whole series of blunders, some of which would have doomed us on an actual marathon night. We first forgot to take the covers off the telescope mirrors. Then we had trouble rolling the roof off and forgot to turn on the clock drive. We, of course, also took a few exposures at 1/30th second rather than on the bulb setting. Our most serious error was that which is feared by all photographers; the film was not put on the spool well enough and did not wind through the camera. Thus, we spent 3 hours taking 21 test shots before we discovered this error. We had to spend another 1-1/2 hours taking new test pictures. These were exposed on regular Konica SR-V 3200 film and developed the next morning so we could gauge the exposure range necessary for the marathon attempt. In calibrating our exposures for the marathon effort, we assumed that the hypersensitized SR-V 3200 would be twice as fast as the regular Konica SR-V 3200 film.


The marathon was performed on the night of Saturday/Sunday, March 19-20, 1988. We arrived at the observatory 2 hours before sunset and got organized with plenty of time to go before sky darkening took place. We brought along a backup camera, film, and a Porta Pac rechargeable battery in case the observatory’s generator failed. We were also dressed very warmly, because the average temperature for the evening was 32° F with no warming facility available other than the car.

The marathon was very successful with photography starting one-half hour after sunset and proceeding until fifteen minutes before sunrise. 96 frames on four rolls of film were exposed. 103 total objects can be identified on contact prints of the negatives. 84 of them are Messier objects, and 19 are assorted NGC or IC objects. One hundred of the total objects were photographed with the 24-inch telescope. The Pleiades (M45) and the Orion Nebula region (M42/43) were taken through the five-inch f/5 finder telescope which afforded us a large enough field of view for these objects. Twelve of the frames were ruined by wind and other problems. Vigorous wind gusts made telescope tracking impossible and shut us down for two hours from 10:30pm to 12:30am. We averaged about 12 objects per hour and could conceivably have photographed nearly 100 Messier objects if the wind had not interfered. To view our images go to the Photographic Messier Marathon Album.

The four rolls of film were developed by a Fast 1-hour Foto Store with excellent results. The rolls were run through the processor with the same setting used for Konica 400 film. Even though our intention was not to produce beautiful pictures, but merely to get as many recognizable images as possible, we did obtain a surprisingly fair number of nice photographs. Many of the pictures were somewhat marred by large streaks of static electricity discharge, a problem we had previously not encountered. The relative humidity at the observatory was only 4% along with considerable wind and dust. Static electricity was very evident about the observatory and the telescope. Every attempt was made to handle the film carefully and not wind or rewind it rapidly. Nevertheless, static discharge was a problem and might conceivably be a particular nuisance with hypersensitized film used under very dry conditions. We recommend careful film handling with slow film rewinding. Grounding the telescope and the camera might also be helpful under these types of conditions.


It is possible to photograph the vast majority of the Messier objects in one night. It is probably not possible to photograph them all, because some of the very early evening and early morning objects will be low on the horizon and burned out by twilight. They are difficult enough to see even with a large telescope, let alone photograph well. It is probably possible to obtain pictures of 100 of the Messier objects in an evening if you plan well, have luck, good equipment, and superb viewing conditions. If you like astrophotography and want a challenge, give it a try. A photographic Messier Marathon is mainly done for the fun of it, but it does have an added benefit. You now have a consecutive series of pictures of the Messier objects all taken with the same equipment and film and with the same observing conditions, if you discount photographs of those objects low in the sky. It is now possible to do rapid side by side comparisons of the objects' relative size, brightness, and color. This is something that is not yet available from any book or published picture set.

Essay originally posted December 1998 (prior to modern digital imaging and digital telescope systems)


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