Saturday, May 18, 2013

Milky Way Over Slippery Elm Trail, Don't Take Mediocre Dark Skies for Granted

I got a job at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) so I'll be moving to the Indianapolis area in just a few weeks. Because of this, I decided to try my hand at some Milky Way shots to take advantage of my rather rural location here in Bowling Green. I'd hate to get to Indy only to realize I was sitting under halfway decent skies all these years and wasted them. 

I've been waiting for the bright part of the Milky Way to return to the late evening sky later this summer, but I decided not to wait any longer and had to go out at 3:30am to catch the Milky Way high enough above the horizon. By the time the Milky Way is high around 11pm, I'll already be in Indy!

I took the dog out at 3:00am on May 16 and saw a fairly clear sky with some storms about 10-20 miles to the South. I figured there's no time like the present, grabbed my camera, and headed to the Slippery Elm Trail. I know the trail is closed at dark, but I figured I'd risk it since I've never seen anyone patrolling the path.

milky way over ohio
Stack of 10 subs, 5 darks, each at 15 sec, f/4.5, ISO 1600, 18mm

milky way over ohio
Single frame at 15 sec, f/4.5, ISO 1600, 18mm, processed in Photoshop CS5

milky way image processing
The above image, before and after image processing

scorpius constellation label
A fun piece of summer sky! Single frame color corrected in Photoshop

milky way in summer triangle
Stack of 7 subs, 5 darks, each at 15 sec, f/4.5, ISO 1600, 18mm

I got some pretty good results even with just a few subs stacked in Deep Sky Stacker (DSS). I only took 29 shots (15 seconds each) during my entire session because it was so late, I forgot a head lamp, and because I heard a creepy noise in the bushes next to me. Here is the story I told to my friends on our e-mail chain about my experience:

Last night, at 3:30am, I woke up to take the dog out. The night sky was clear overhead, with some very low clouds to the south producing flashes of lightning but no audible thunder. I looked at several weather apps and decided to seize the moment to take some night sky photos. Since I'll be moving to Indy, I don't want to take for granted the fact that I currently live about 5 minutes drive from some decently dark skies.

I slowly drove through the trailer park behind Walmart and parked as far down as I could along the Slippery Elm Trail. I quietly removed my camera bag and tripod from the back seat and shuffled down the trail beyond the reach of trailer park street lights. Under the highway overpass, I heard my footsteps echo as my pace quickened. I reached a suitable area and looked up to see what looked like a pale swath of clouds arching from the south horizon through the Summer Triangle - it was the Milky Way!

After shooting a few dozen photos, and struggling to find focus with no moon as a point of reference, I heard an unexpected noise about 100 yards in the brush to the southeast of my location. It was a short loud "WOO!" almost identical to the high pitched "woo!" sample in the 1988 smash hit "It Takes Two" by Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock (

It was loud enough to echo off the mound of the elevated highway overpass, but I didn't think much of it. It could have been a whistle or a wild turkey or a meth-head yelling "woo!" - so I continued shooting. 5 minutes later I heard it again much closer... "WOO!" At 4:00am in the middle of a field surrounded by young pine trees and honeysuckle, what could be making that noise? I froze to listen, and heard interval twigs snapping through tall grass under what could have been footsteps. I pictured an elk charging out of the brush, or a meth zombie eating my face and stealing my camera. Then I realized, it could also be the Ohio grassman sneaking up to see what I was doing out there in the darkness all alone. My eyes watered. I grabbed my camera bag without closing it and didn't wait to fold up my tripod before making an awkward speedwalk getaway toward my car. It was the kind of speedwalk you make after a 3 hour breakfast at Harris, except carrying an open camera bag and looking over your shoulder.

Did I have an encounter with the Ohio grassman? Ooooh probably not. But even though I had a camera on a tripod ready to go, I wasn't going to wait around to find out.

The end.

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