I love seeing all the long-exposure photographs of the Milky Way, but I'm going to Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania next month, and I'm wondering if there are any photos that approximate what our galaxy looks like to the unaided eye. I'm really just trying to set my expectations, because I know it's not going to look like what you generally see in long-exposure photos. (Naturally, people are generally showing off their carefully crafted and enhanced images, rather than trying to show what we actually see with our eyes.)

Edit: I did find this post, which, according to the author, comes close to approximating the view with the unaided eye. For those that have seen the Milky Way from a Dark Sky site, though, I'd be interested to hear your opinion on the relative accuracy of this image.

  • $\begingroup$ Forget it, nothing compares to the first-person experience. $\endgroup$ – Florin Andrei Jun 4 '14 at 18:46
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, it's definitely not a big deal, I was just curious if anything was out there. $\endgroup$ – Ben Lacy Jun 4 '14 at 19:49

It may be difficult to find proper photos that emulate this, both because given the tools and the subject, most people would opt for longer exposures, and also because of the general difficulty in emulating how our brain processes visual information into an image, especially in low-light or high contrast situations like this. I think the photo at the bottom of this article may be a decent recreation of it, though it's a bit fuzzy and not so wide. Note: There are star trails forming in the image, which is indicative of it being a longer exposure. The image (unless cropped) doesn't appear to be from a wide-angle lens - I would guess somewhere in the 35-50mm range. Perhaps a 10 secondish exposure, but my judgement is more based on result than technique.

What you can see will depend a lot upon the conditions of the night. You're probably not expecting a lot of light pollution, but you also have to keep in mind that your eyes will adjust to light as well. A cell phone or a full moon can be enough to prevent you from being able to see well. If conditions are perfect - little to no light pollution, no light from cars, flashlights, etc, a new moon, low humidity/no clouds, etc, and the milky way is in a good position, you will be able to pick out the galaxy quite well. You should be able to notice both the high concentration of stars as well as the 'milky' lighter shade caused by the many stars too dim or distant to appear bright.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, I figured it's hard to reproduce what our eyes actually see, but I'm hoping there's something that approximates it... Also, Cherry Springs State Park is an International Dark Sky Park, and the day I'm going will almost be a New Moon, so there will be little light pollution from the moon. Light is very well-regulated and shielded around the park in general. So as long as it's not too cloudy, it should be great! $\endgroup$ – Ben Lacy Jun 4 '14 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ That sounds like really great conditions. You'll probably have to be out quite late for optimal viewing (this website has a decent chart for predicting optimal timing). I'll be going out myself during August for the Perseids, but I'm expecting some light pollution (I'll be abroad in Asia during that time). Maybe I will have to make a winter visit to Cherry Springs! $\endgroup$ – Mitch Goshorn Jun 4 '14 at 15:18

No, there are not. Try as I might, I cannot without a dynamic screen construct the actual effect. I know something of log vision scales and light effects and the eye's own internal zoom (this is the origin of the large moon error). In order to make it look right it is necessary to render it wrong, and at a very high DPI (> 400 I believe).

I see at once the foreground stars, and behind two sheets of light (I know it's really only one sheet with a dust band in front of it but that's not what it looks like), and at the same time I see the stars that make up the light sources of the sheets of light. Not that I can really resolve them, but as if I were to pick up sand from the beach where the boundaries are obvious to existence but counting is not possible. That is, it's just at the point of switching between a texture and individual entities.

I cannot make out any color at all because the total light level is just too low, but the night sky provides enough light to walk around by (neither Venus nor the Moon were visible when I tested the walking around by).


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