Why Film Astrophotography?

by Dick Locke, www.dl-digital.com

When I first wrote this article a few years ago I was primarily shooting astronomy pictures with film.  As of 10/2005 I have switched to Canon's EOS D20a Digital SLR camera.  I'm getting pretty good results!  I have shot some good film stuff this year, though.  In 2008 I purchased a QHY8 CCD Camera and am now using that for most of my imaging.

So I guess the rest of this is outdated in 2008, but here it is:

I am what seems like a dying breed: Someone who "still" does film astrophotography.  Here are some film images, along with some reasons I still use film.  Note that I'm using a 102mm f5.9 refractor, a 300mm f2.8 ED camera lens, and other camera lenses for most of my astrophotography right now. (2005 update: upgraded to a 130mm APO refractor.)

  1. Cost of the equipment you need for film astrophotography.  Given that you have a telescope mount capable of tracking the sky, then with camera equipment costing a few hundred dollars it is possible to take outstanding astronomy images.  This above image was taken on a Pentax K1000 camera with a 50mm lens.  While people are beginning to get excellent wide-field images with Digital SLRs, those cameras are still in the $1000 range.
  2. Alternative costs: Shooting with my 102mm refractor I get a nice wide field.  A CCD camera that would be an ideal mate for this telescope would be a SBIG ST-10XME costs over $6000.  I'd also want a laptop computer to go with that.
  3. Aesthetics:  For wide-field astrophotography, I find film images to be more pleasing that DSLR images.  This is especially true of emission nebula with H-alpha light (deep red).  The infrared filters used on DSLRs tend to block most of the light in this wavelength, and the resulting pictures show what to me is a lack of red.  See the gamma cygni image & horsehead area image for the rich reds film can provide.  Note: the Canon's EOS D20a Digital SLR camera has a special filter that allows 2.5 times more of the Hydrogen Alpha spectrum to pass than the standard D20.
  4. No laptop...  I don't need to haul a laptop out to a dark site when I'm doing film photography.
  5. No external power...  I can easily run off battery power for a night's astrophotography since I don't need to power a laptop and a CCD camera.
  6. Star trails.  The image below is a two hour exposure.  Not possible on DSLRs due to noise.

Having said all that, I am experimenting more and more with my Digital SLR with good results.  It produced better Comet NEAT pictures that I was able to capture with film.  It also does very well on dim galaxies compared with film.

Film choices:  (2005 Update: Cheap Fuji Super HQ 200 appears to be a good astronomy film, available at Targets, WalMarts, and drug stores)

Old: The best astronomy films have been discontinued but may be available from people with stockpiles.  The best print films have been Kodak: PJ400, RG400, Supra400, and LE400.  Currently Kodak E200 slide film is the only good astro film choice available over the counter.  Update: Fuji Provia 400F, another slide film, is also showing good results.  There are other alternatives if you're willing to "hyper" your film.  Join the astrophotography mailing list if you're interested.

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