Duane Womack, Astrophotographer
Mohawk Valley Today is so happy to welcome guest author, Cheyenne Dorsagno. Cheyenne brings with her a passion for creative and freelance writing along with a desire to share human-interest pieces, among other topics, in and about the Mohawk Valley.
The inspiring work of astrophotographer, Duane Womack
Duane Womack has always photographed the often-overlooked details of nature, starting with bugs and flowers, leading to his wife, Marleah, gifting him a telescope and him photographing our stars.
By day, Duane is a Rental Shop Manager at Syracuse Scenery & Stage Lighting. By night, he stands in his yard in Rome, NY, capturing stills of the beautiful light that remains in the sky.
Duane has been doing astrophotography for over four years now, but it took him about a year-and-a-half until he felt more confident. He’s captured many breathtaking photos:
“I just try to capture the vastness of time and space in an image,” said Duane.
The pictured telescope (one of many he owns) is Celestron’s Powerseeker 127eq, and his primary camera is the ZWO ASI294MC.
Duane’s camera has a low shutter rate (or, a long exposure time) that lets in more light. This is because the objects of interest are encapsulated by the overwhelming darkness of space; so, instead of taking many pictures quickly (like in sports photography), he takes one picture slowly. In up-to nine hours of post-production using intensive computer processing, Duane smoothens the noise, and the many pitch-black photos of the ever-moving stars are averaged and stacked into one detailed photo of the night sky. This is further complicated by the city’s light pollution, which clouds the already-faint stars.
Not so long ago, such advanced technology was exclusive to professional astronomers.
Here’s one photo by Duane in multiple stages of post-production, capturing the M8 Lagoon Nebula:
Marleah describes Duane as a perfectionist; this is evident in his rejection of any prestigious titles denoting proficiency in his craft. Duane’s fascination with astrophotography comes with its own artistic and scientific dialect, which laymen (like myself) would say Duane has mastered; Marleah describes this discourse as “Duane-splaining.”
After a night of capturing stars with his camera, he may have an excited 1:30 AM phone call with friend and fellow-stargazer Garvis. Thankfully, Garvis speaks Duane’s language.
One thing that’s easy for all of us to understand is why they have this fascination.
“Everything we see in the sky belongs to the past,” said Timothy Ferris, best-selling American science writer.
“I realized that what I was using is a time machine that allows me to see light from millions of years ago, and that ignited my curiosity,” echoed Duane.
Now, queue the dreamy Neil DeGrasse Tyson voiceover:
According to NASA, light from our closest neighboring star system, the Proxima Centauri, takes 4.24 years to reach us. Meanwhile, light from the farthest stars in our naturally-observable universe, from the Andromeda Galaxy, takes about 2.5 million years to reach us. Hence, we have the concept of astronomical distance known as a “light-year.” On any given night, a star you see might not even exist anymore.
When asked how aspiring astronomers and astrophotographers could get started, Duane said, “Don’t.”
It’s a costly hobby.
Some gear from dedicated-sellers for “amateurs,” like High Point, costs upwards of $100K. Duane’s current ensemble of equipment cost him about $8K, which also sets a precedent that Marleah and Duane agree on: when Marleah wants to get a brand-name wallet, for example, she gets one. It’s only fair!
Besides – that’s not so bad. NASA’s James Webb space telescope cost taxpayers $10 billion, according to NBC News. But that’s a small price to pay in their self-proclaimed pursuit to answer some of mankind’s biggest, longest-standing questions: How did we get here? Are we alone in the universe? How does the universe work?
NASA is regarded as the leader in astronomical advancement, but for any stargazing “dorks” who invest in the hobby, they could make their own contribution. Space is simply too vast – and even NASA doesn’t have the resources to pick-up every notable detail.
Take, for example, the Soap Bubble Nebula – nebula being a cloud of gas and dust. According to NOIRLab (“the US national center for ground-based, nighttime optical astronomy”), this unusually-spherical nebula was unexpectedly discovered by amateur astronomer Dave Jurasevich in July of 2008.
So, it’s worthwhile to explore space on your own, since you can’t even expect NASA to catch everything! For guidance on how to start, you can consult the astronomical community on the Cloudy Nights website.
Duane characterizes these senses of awe and curiosity as distinctly human, citing one of his favorite books, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this fantastical book, the supercomputer Deep Thought is invented to find the answer to the ultimate question – “the meaning of life, the universe, and everything;” when asked this vast and indistinguishable question, the question that plagues us all, the computer mulled it over for 7.5 million years, and it could only answer “42.” According to The Independent, Adams shoos away any theories behind the meaning of “42” – it’s just a joke!
When Duane is grounded here on Earth, he’s passing time with his daughter Elise and his wife – newly married in February of 2022.
“I feel like I’m in the longest sleepover ever,” said Duane of his marriage to Marleah.
He described their connection as “wholesome.” Just a few of their relational cornerstones include watching YouTube videos of lottery scratch-offs, conspiring on how to surprise Marleah’s mom with a toy hippo that they volley back-and-forth to each other between New York and Florida (where mom lives), and effortlessly talking over each other in good-natured ball-busting – nothing is off-limits.
Duane and Marleah are expecting their first baby, a boy, in February.
About Cheyenne Dorsagno
Cheyenne Dorsagno is an Italian-American born and raised in underdog Utica, NY. She studied English at SUNY Oneonta with a minor in Professional Writing and an Editor-in-Chief role at the newspaper. Currently, Cheyenne strives to make our big world a little smaller by introducing locals to their neighbors via human-interest pieces shared on her blog, Our Neighborhood. She’s pursuing creative writing in her free time and various freelance writing in her professional time, such as by copy-writing in domestic travel and health-minded foods.