My family has never travelled light. The weeks prior to my scheduled departure were hectic as I figured out how I could transport all the usual camping equipment plus telescopes, cameras and tripods. I had a very ambitious list of photography projects which required nearly all of my accumulated gear. I might not be able to try every experiment on my list, but at least I would have the right stuff with me.
A mental calculation showed that all of it couldn’t possibly fit into my minivan, even using the cartop carrier that we had overflowed into in previous years. I also had to keep in mind that I would, for part of the time, have two passengers, including my teenaged son who had recently grown into a large-scale young man. Hauling a trailer was a skill I didn’t want to master. Acquiring a larger vehicle was not an option. So I decided to add additional cartop storage. I went out to find a left-handed version of the “Yakima Rocket Box” I already owned so I could carry them side-by-side on my roof. Alas, they no longer made them in their original white color; the new ones were black. I hesitated, but after learning that there was only one remaining in stock, I decided that this was actually a desirable feature; I would be able to distinguish them by their color… for all those moments where I might otherwise be confused about where I had stowed what. Ok, maybe it’s not a strong benefit, but I didn’t need much to make the purchase decision.
And so as I prepared for my upcoming trip, I was seen driving around town in my green minivan with black and white cartop containers. When asked what they were for, I explained that the white one was for carrying salt, and the black one contained pepper, of course.
Never mind the odd reactions, I had a legitimate need for all this space. As I approached the last week before departing, I made a trial fit of most of the equipment and convinced myself that it might work.
I also realized that I had never succeeded in the two critical basics of deep sky astrophotos: accurate tracking, and good focus. Before leaving home, I needed to be sure that I had the right equipment and components to be successful on the road. It would also be nice if I had the right technique, but this required practice. I spent as many evenings as I could doing this practice. This proved beneficial because it helped identify additional things I needed: better power supplies, dew prevention, connectors, off-axis guiding adapters, and all the special purpose tools to maintain them. I made a flurry of purchases, including orders for film.
There is no special-purpose film specifically designed for astrophotography. In general one needs fast film for low light conditions, but this is not enough. Just because a film has a high speed rating does not assure that it will work under the trickle of photons making it through a telescope. Film choice is always an emotional topic with photographers, but in this case it is augmented by a large amount of trial and error exposure tests by a small core of astrophotographers around the world. As a result, there is an established film lore that prescribes certain types over others for this application, one that film designers never considered.
I had accidentally stumbled across one of the successful film types in my early efforts. A Kodak engineer had offered samples of a new Ektachrome slide film, E200. Not knowing better, I loaded it into a camera and took some pictures of the Milky Way. They were stunning! Only later, after trying to reproduce the results with other films did I discover that E200 was one of the greatest films ever produced for my purpose. I ordered a “brick”: 20 boxes, packaged as a 4-column by 5-row bundle.
Another film that has wide respect among astrophotographers is PJM640, a Kodak emulsion designed for photojournalists. This film has a checkered history. PJM640 was no longer made, a result of competitive turmoil in the film market. It lived on however in new identities, each attempting to reach a market that would bring revenues to the company. It was renamed PJ400 (“photo-journalist 400-speed”) and offered to professionals for a few years. This was eventually also discontinued, but a new film, LE400 showed up, marketed to law enforcement for reconnaissance and evidence gathering. It was the same emulsion. It too was discontinued, but inventories still existed in some parts of the country. I located and ordered two bricks, fearing that this time the film might not be reincarnated.
I had started a project of taking pictures of the crescent moon using a black and white film, TechPan. I thought I would be able to make more of these exposures on this trip, and so I would need a supply of this special-purpose high resolution film.
A final film type I ordered was truly an experiment. I had admired the pictures of astrophotographer Jon Kolb who, like me, enjoys making startrail photos. He had posted some of his work using Fuji Provia-100, an actually somewhat slow transparency film, but one which captured star colors beautifully.
Although all of this film is commercially available, it is not available at just any drugstore, and so it was important that I have my supplies available before heading out to areas where the professional film suppliers don’t have retail outlets. I ordered and received the film in the weeks and days before my leave. I repacked it into Tupperware containers, each with a vial of desiccant to keep moisture and humidity away– another lesson from earlier years.
Years ago I had been struck by a photo made by the talented couple of Tony and Daphne Hallas showing the array of equipment that they bring to their Mt. Pinos dark sky site. When arranged on the ground next to their carry-it-all truck, it makes a humbling display of what it takes to make world-class astrophotographs.
I had it in mind to make my own scaled down version of this shot. I was following a list compiled by another inspiring mentor, Jerry Lodriguss, of what to take on an astrophoto expedition. The list was admired among the world’s small band of amateur astrophotographers, but critiqued as not including a kitchen sink (it did include darkroom developing tanks), and speculations on the size of the vehicle to haul it all. I didn’t own the full extent of Jerry’s recommended equipment, but it still provided a nice guide, and it caused me to acquire further items I hadn’t previously realized I needed.
I spent the morning of my departure day in the dual effort of gathering everything I would be taking, and arranging it for my picture. In the back of my mind was the nagging question of whether it would really all fit. It didn’t matter. I took my picture, and decided I’d make it fit. Maybe there were things I could jettison.
I didn’t have to abandon anything. I tucked it all away, then climbed in and backed out of the driveway. In spite of the enormous cargo I had just packed up, my nagging background thoughts shifted to what I might be forgetting. I recited my usual reassuring self-talk when this happens: if I had my tickets and my credit card, I should be able to negotiate any setback. Of course, this was not the usual 3-day business trip. There were no tickets, and if I had left behind some critical component like a field-flattening corrector lens, or a wide-mount T-adapter, there was no strip-mall where I could pick up a replacement. I used my other self-reassurance: whatever I had forgotten, there was plenty enough to keep me busy and happy. Even if I ended up with nothing to show for it, the trip would be an experience of a lifetime.
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