Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A shout-out to the film folks

Film! I have a soft spot in my heart for film astrophotography, even though I use a CCD camera. Last night, while surfing the web, I checked to see if Jim Cormier, a modern-day film astrophotographer, had posted any new film images. He has, and they're really cool! I want to post some links to his images, so that more people will get a chance to see them.

I've done some film astrophotography - more on this in a bit - but I'm not one of the old-school `film guys' from back in the day. For well over a century, emulsion-based photography was photography, before sophisticated electronic sensors were developed. The art and science of emulsion-based astrophotography produced some beautiful results, through the heroic efforts of many, many research astronomers and amateur enthusiasts. These results depended on things like long single exposures, manual guiding, cold cameras, gas hypersensitization, and the envelope-pushing techniques that David Malin developed at the Anglo-Australian Observatory. Other than a few star-trail images, and a couple of short guided images of Halley's Comet in 1986, I didn't shoot film back in the day. (I was just a kid/teenager at the time, too.) But plenty of people did, and they left a rich, heroic legacy of astro-imaging on emulsion.

The advent of CCDs meant the `death of film', for the most part, since CCDs are so much more sensitive, and have a (generally linear) response to light that makes them more useful for measuring the brightnesses of things. The recent demise of Kodak is perhaps the best-publicized event in the long twilight of emulsion. However, not all amateur imagers have given up on film! There are a few folks out there who really enjoy shooting film, and enjoy the results they get. Naturally, there's some involvement with the digital realm, since we see their images on the web, after all. But at heart, their `sensors' are emulsion-coated materials, and I just think that's cool. They love film, and I admire them for it. I think that the world of film and processing will always have a special place in my heart, probably because I enjoyed darkroom work when I was a high-school student. I worked in the yearbook darkroom, and I set up a small B&W darkroom in my folks' house during high school. (I even developed a roll or two of slide film during graduate school, which was a hoot.)

If there's a `hero of film' in 2012, it's probably Jim Cormier from Maine. He mostly shoots wide-field images, and largely on Ektachrome 200, which seems to have been the `color astro film of choice' during the latter years of film's heyday. At present, his images can be found in several places on the web. Here are some recommended links:

For an image with a great `wow' factor, check out his latest 4-panel E200 Milky Way panorama.

Jim's Blogspot site also shows his images, and he's got a nice post about `My Most Productive Dark-Run Ever'. I love it! (Also note the `hand-corrected guiding'... John Henry, indeed!)

He has a photostream on Flickr, which is worth exploring. Another highlight from his Flickr stream is his 2011 B&W project to shoot parts of the Milky Way, a la Edward Barnard's atlas. Very cool.

While you're at it, you might enjoy Christopher Barry's Kickstarter proposal, to shoot wide-field film images this summer. It looks like he made his funding goal! I eagerly await his results.

I can't quite describe why I get such a kick out of the work of these `film guys', but I just do. I'm really glad that they're sharing their work.

While I'm on the topic of film, I suppose I ought to post a film image of my own. There's a bit more backstory to this film enthusiasm of mine, as it turns out. I could probably write a long series of blog posts about this, but here's a short version: In the late summer and fall of 2011, I did a film-imaging project. I was finishing my MSc in astronomy, and my final project involved a comparison of film-based and CCD-based imaging techniques. The film side of the story got pretty epic, but keep things short, here's an image of M31 that I shot on Ektachrome 200, using a Nikon FM camera body attached to my ED80 refractor. This is about 150 minutes of total exposure time (I forget the lengths of the subexposures), stacked and processed in Pixinsight:

M31, captured on Ektachrome 200 from a Bay Area hilltop site.
Click on the image for a larger version, or click here for full size.

You've probably noticed the curious flares coming off of the brighter stars. Those are actually due to the film scanner I used. (I've examined the slides under a microscope, and the flares aren't present in the slides.) One of these days I'd like to re-scan my slides and see if I can get a better result. Another issue that came up: The red LEDs from my light meter caused the slides to be badly light-struck. Next time I try shooting with my FM, I'm going to take out the light-meter batteries. Pixinsight's Dynamic Background Extraction routine was able to clean up most of this red mess, but it would have been nice if I hadn't had to deal with it.

Ektachrome 200 is basically gone now, but I was able to buy some on EBay, and a fellow astro-imager gave me several rolls. My leftover E200 is in my fridge, and one of these years I ought to shoot it. Some year, I should devote a fall and a winter to shooting the heck out of M31 and M42 on film. If I can find a 16-bit (or deeper) film scanner that doesn't produce those flares, I'd love to create the best `film-captured' M31 and M42 I can, with help from Pixinsight. Send that good `ol E200 out in one last blaze of glory!


  1. My ears were burning. A nice post. There are a few other film astro-shooters out there, and perhaps the art will survive longer yet. Color films will eventually die off, but B&W should be around for some time to come. Thanks for your valuable post related to this endeavor.

    Let me know when you shoot that E200!

    Jim C.

  2. Hi Jim,

    Thanks very much for your comment! Although I doubt I'll ever be a big-time film imager, it's neat to see that some people are still doing it. Hopefully I'll get to shoot that E200 sometime in the next couple of years.

    I'm no authority on the remaining market for B&W film and chemicals, but I rather suspect you're right, that B&W film will be around for a while. Last summer and fall I tried to find a B&W film that could record Red at least moderately well, so as to try and make some scanned-film RGB images. I didn't have much luck, but I'd have to go back and check my notes. It would be nice to have a B&W film stock that could record most of the visible spectrum, including red, and which would remain available for a while. Kind of like a `B&W E200'.

    I hope you have good weather for shooting film this summer!

    - Marek