Just above the pinnacle of the roof of the Shieldstown Covered Bridge, you can see Comet Lovejoy. The winter band of the Milky Way also is above the Jackson County landmark.

Several galaxies can be seen in the background. And at left is a sycamore tree with most of its lower branches removed.

“Awesome shot, Forrest,” Susie Schnitker said in a comment to the photographer, Forrest Willey, on the Facebook page for his business, Cortland Astronomy. In another comment, Dianna Ross said, “I like that picture.”

Another photo has a Mercury Marauder parked in a field with the stars in the sky reflecting on the car’s hood and windshield.

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“Really like this one, Forrest,” Lois Bryden commented.

In Willey’s first assignment for his business, he captured the stars in the sky above Vision Financial Group on West Second Street in Seymour. Light pollution and cloud cover made taking pictures difficult, but through trial and error, Willey captured the photos he wanted.

“We love our new, unique photos,” someone from the business posted.

It’s feedback like this that has helped Willey turn a love of photography and astronomy into a side job as an astrophotographer.

“I like the solitude,” said Willey, who lives in Honeytown, north of Brownstown. “I like that I can go out at night and see a part of the evening that a lot of people either ignore or maybe haven’t seen. A lot of people, once the sun goes down this time of year, they are indoors watching TV or whatever. I just like being out there and experiencing the countryside at night. It’s beautiful.”

It has given Willey a different perspective.

“It’s interesting. The longer you are out there, the more your eyes adapt to the dark and the more you can see just with your own naked eye,” he said. “People would be amazed to know that a lot of the things that are in my pictures are actually visible to the unaided eye. It just takes a little bit of acclimation to pick them up.”

Willey said his interest in photography began when he was 9. He wasn’t taking pictures quite yet, but he was reading about photography.

“While most of my friends were reading ‘Harry Potter,’ I was reading Isaac Asimov and things like that,” Willey said with a smile. “I was the cool kid, let me tell you.”

The first time he said he was “wowed” was while reading a book on a guide to the night sky by astronomer Terence Dickinson.

“He had a picture in there of a long exposure of the Milky Way from the Northern Hemisphere,” Willey said. “I thought, ‘Wow! That is really neat, and I would love to do something like this one day.’”

In 2004, Willey received a point-and-shoot camera for a graduation present. One morning before leaving for college classes in Columbus, he set the camera up on a tripod to take his first pictures of the sky.

“Looking at what I’ve done now, it was an awful picture, but I thought it was pretty cool,” he said, smiling.

In 2010, he purchased his own digital single-lens reflex camera. He said a crop sensor or full frame can be used.

“If you don’t want to have star trail in a shot, a full frame might take a little longer of an exposure, but it’s probably not worth the difference in cost between the two,” he said.

Willey said you could use a point-and-shoot camera if it allowed for a remote timer or could be focused manually.

“Although, the little 4-by-3 sensor is probably not going to pick up a lot of detail,” he said.

One of the keys to Willey’s success lies in the lens. He uses a 16-millimeter wide-angle lens.

“It produces just tack-sharp images,” he said.

Lightning also is important but can be a challenge. Willey said the shortest amount of time he has spent outside is 10 minutes. Other times, he could spend several hours.

“If I want to get a lot of stars in a shot, then I want to make sure that I’m out there a couple hours after the sun has been down,” he said.

The most frustrating thing, he said, is when he has a shot lined up and an airplane comes into the picture. From where he and his wife, Jill, live, he said he may take 20 shots, and 15 of them have an airplane in them.

“You can airbrush a lot of things out of a picture, but it’s hard to airbrush things out of the night sky,” he said. “An airplane, it’s obvious what it is because you’ve got dots that are just blinking in a steady pattern. That’s really frustrating.”

Focus is another critical component. Willey said he uses manual setting and sets the ISO around 400 or 800.

“If you’ve got a really nice camera, you can open it up to 1,600 or 3,200 and be OK,” he said.

When trying to shoot a long exposure of the sky, Willey uses a Haig mount, which tracks the rotation of the night sky. Those can be costly, so he made his own at home.

“It’s a pretty precise piece of equipment,” he said. “It allows you to take longer exposures without streaking and star trailing and those kind of things. Whenever you take a picture of the sky, you’re standing still, but the earth is rotating, so it’s constantly exposing a new part of the sky.”

Another device Willey purchased is a Celestron C90 telescope, which also can be used to take pictures.

“It’s awesome for taking pictures of the moon,” he said.

After he takes pictures, Willey downloads them onto a computer and uses Photoshop. He said the editing process is where most of his time is spent.

For those wanting to try astrophotography, Willey said it’s good to have some knowledge about astronomy and even some trigonometry and geometry.

“It helps to have just a general understanding of the seasons, what stars are visible when,” he said. “Most of what I do, I incorporate the night sky into the foreground objects or as background. Knowing when something is going to rise kind of helps determine when to go out and take the picture, just a knowledge of what appears where.”

Willey is a landscaper by trade. Since that’s mainly seasonal work, he decided to form Cortland Astronomy to make a little extra money.

He charges a non-refundable upfront session fee, and the rest is charged at $25 per hour. He either puts photos on a CD or has a lab in California make large prints.

While he has only had a few major projects so far, Willey hopes to pick up more work. He said he would like to take pictures of downtown Seymour, farming operations and community activities. He also hopes to sell his work during the Seymour Oktoberfest.

On the Web

To check out Forrest Willey’s work, visit facebook.com/CortlandAstronomy.

Willey file

Name: Forrest Willey

Age: 28

Residence: Honeytown

Education: Seymour High School (2004); Purdue University (2008, creative writing major, history minor)

Occupation: NaturalScape Services Inc. in Cortland; Cortland Astronomy

Family: Wife, Jill Willey; parents, Mike and Lora Willey; brothers, Levi and Leif Willey

Pull Quote

“I like that I can go out at night and see a part of the evening that a lot of people either ignore or maybe haven’t seen. A lot of people, once the sun goes down this time of year, they are indoors watching TV or whatever. I just like being out there and experiencing the countryside at night. It’s beautiful,” said Forrest Willey, owner of Cortland Astronomy

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.