While waiting for the advent of bluebonnet and wildflower season here in central Texas, my family and I took advantage of a few down days and visited Disney World. I knew my two girls, ages 8 and 6, would love it, but I wasn’t sure how much my wife and I would appreciate the trip. We started the trip at the Austin airport with me having a hunting knife confiscated at security. Doh! I completely forgot it was in my backpack. I asked if I could take it back to my car. No. I even asked the security guy if he could use it… just don’t throw it away! No. That was a bummer. Nevertheless, that wasn’t going to ruin this trip.
As we strolled through the airport looking for food, I noticed in one of the tourist shops – on a stand in the front – my book of Austin photos! Pretty cool stuff for me. My girls were unphased and just wanted food.
The two hour-twenty minute flight was uneventful, and after landing in Orlando and gathering our luggage (it all arrived safely!), we caught the Disney Express to the Caribbean Beach Resort. I’ll spare you all the details, but suffice it to say to we had a really good time. I’d read where 75% of first time visitors return to Disney. I feel pretty good about saying we’ll be back – sooner rather than later, if possible. Here are a few thoughts:
1 – We stayed on site. No car. Transportation was extremely efficient.
2 – We had a meal plan. I know we could probably save money by paying individually, but it was liberating not having to give a second thought to prices throughout the entire trip. I’m pretty frugal and seeing those prices would have made me tighten up a bit. With the meal plan, I was like “Hey, let’s eat!). All of our meals were good, not great, but nothing was bad.
3 – We had two character lunches – one at the Cinderella Castle (most expensive meal of my life if it wasn’t prepaid), and another at the Akershaus in Norway (Epcot Center). On both occasions, my girls were memorized by the princesses and seeing them (my girls) so amazed and excited was well worth the cost.
4 – I’m captivated by how efficient the entire system at Disney runs. They move people like nobody’s business. Maybe the city planners in Dallas, Houston, and Austin should visit and learn about traffic flow.
5 – Every park employee we engaged with was super nice and helpful. I’d read about this, and it really showed. I think that is a big reason folks come back.
6 – It is a great place to bring kids, and I think my girls were about the perfect age. We probably walked over 25 miles during 4 days, visiting each of the parks, and they never complained. As a parent, my girls were constantly entertained and I only had to herd them in the right direction. That makes everyone happy.
7 – Disney does a good job of insulating you from the world. No talk of Trump’s craziness or Hillary’s shenanigans… just good clean fun.
Two other items… Fast passes work great, as do the magic bands. However, on our last day there (a Saturday) after we used up our 3 morning Fast passes, the fast pass was pretty useless because everything was booked by that point. The first several days, we could use our fast passes, then re-up and schedule more rides/shows with it. I guess weekends really bring in more crowds.
Next, on our first morning in the park – at the Magic Kingdom – as we headed to our first ride to use first fast passes, we found my wife’s magic band had fallen off her wrist. Uggh. Not a good start. We headed back to “City Hall” at the front of the park. Literally 2 minutes later, we were walking out and headed to the rides, a new magic band ready to go. Anywhere else, we would have had forms to fill out and a week of waiting. Not at Disney. They are good. We’ll be back!
And then back to reality…
While business the last few months has been brisk, I’ve been out to shoot exactly twice since December 1st. One excursion involved photographing the icicles hanging from the grotto at Westcave Preserve, located near Hamilton Pool Preserve in the Texas Hill Country. When the temperatures drop into the teens and twenties, rare for these parts, water seeps out of the overhanging ledge and gradually forms long daggers of ice. This is one image from that very cold morning:
Thanks to the folks at Westcave for allowing me access to shoot a beautiful and rare event.
My second trip out for photography was taking four images of town lake for the Four Seasons. I was contacted by an art consultant interested in some work for the hotel rooms, so I obliged and took what they wanted. I look forward to seeing the final product!
I’ll be heading to Big Bend in a few weeks… one of my favorite places to hike and explore. After that, I’ll be exploring the backroads looking for bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers.
As we drift closer to spring, I find myself looking more forward to wildflower season with each passing day. The hope for a colorful crop of flowers this year is alive, especially with the winter rains we’ve had here in central Texas. Our property is once again showing large amounts of bluebonnet rosettes hugging the damp ground.
With that said, I have to temper my expectations. Just last year, we’d had copious amounts of rain, were in the middle of an El Nino, and the future looked colorful. And then we went 60 days without a drop of rain. The bluebonnet season was basically a bust, and even the usual wildflowers such as bluebonnets, bitterweed, Indian blankets (firewheels), poppies, and others never realized their full potential.
I am looking forward to an early Spring trip to Big Bend where the Big Bend Bluebonnets bloom much earlier than their Hill Country cousins. Flowers or not, that is always one of my favorite places to explore and photograph.
So we wait, hope for rain and colder weather until March and April.
In the meantime, feel free to peruse photos and pictures of past wildflower seasons in my online galleries here:
This bluebonnet photograph was the last image taken on this quiet evening in the Hill Country. This favorite Texas wildflower was scattered across the rolling hills, and the sky showed a bit of color as day transitioned to night. If I had not sat on a cactus while trying to get low to shoot from ground level, this would have been a perfect evening!
Well, here we are at the end of 2016. While I look forward to more good things in 2017, I wanted to take a minute or two and reflect on the past year.
In superficial matters, I was able to take some good trips that helped grow my business: Big Bend several times, the Guadalupe Mountains, the Texas coast, Dallas and Fort Worth, and many beautiful locations throughout the hill country. From these little treks, I’ll share my five favorite photographs in just a bit.
First, I’d like to share a few things I learned, personally, this year.
1 – I still prefer to be somewhere outdoors and mostly left alone to my thoughts rather than around a group of people (my family and a few close friends are the exception.) I’ve never been a part of a photography group or club. That just isn’t for me. I don’t like “talking shop” as some do, either. I’d rather enjoy a good hike, do my work, and hike back. If someone is with me, we can talk about other topics – just not photography.
2 – There are two kinds of people – those without kids and those with kids. If you have kids, you know what I mean.
3 – You’ll never love anything or anyone more than your own kids. It wasn’t until I had two girls that I understood how much my own parents loved me.
4 – Photographers are not good at sharing. This seems to be an unfortunate generalization. I’ve interacted with a few established photographers this year, and when it comes down to it, they were not forthcoming (actually quite evasive and selfish) in sharing any sort of locations to shoot (and one did this even after I helped him secure a great location earlier in the year through one of my contacts). I certainly won’t name them here, but I think it is sad how they behaved. Maybe they felt threatened? I know one in Austin who does, and he really shouldn’t. While I won’t put locations online, I don’t mind sharing. I figure if you help out someone, that good will eventually will circle back around.
5 – Drones are not for me – at least just yet. I bought a high end model for work, then sold it several months later. It just couldn’t produce the high quality images that can be made large that I needed. Plus, I just didn’t have enough time to do both standard landscape photography and drone work. Maybe someday… I do have a friend that is quite good at drone work, though, and produces amazing skylines of Austin. They just cannot be printed very large.
6 – Positive affirmations work; a positive attitude and mental mindset do make a difference.
7 – Sometimes people are going to do what they do, and it is fruitless to attempt to understand them. Even logic often fails.
8 – Despite the naysayers, you can support a family of four shooting landscape photography and do quite nicely. Everything you read seems to indicate this is quite difficult. And yes, it does take some perseverance and attention to tedious detail. Yes, I’ve worked hard to get where I am, especially with the behind-the-scenes portion of the business (marketing and getting my name out there). But it can be done.
9 – I have a supportive family.
10 – I really like what I do.
OK… with those random thoughts done, here are some of my favorite images of the year in no particular order:
1 – Amazing light from Big Bend… this has turned out to be one of my best sellers:
The first mile of the Lost Mine Hike in Big Bend National Park is a gradual uphill walk to a nice vantage point overlooking the basin below. Go another 1.5 miles up some relatively easy switchbacks and you reach this point that looks over Juniper Canyon toward the South Rim. I had hoped for a nice sunset, but the amazing light that spread forth from the western horizon suprassed my expecations. The beautiful colors did not last long, but they offered a lingering memory of a magical place amid this rugged Texas landscape.
2 – Bluebonnets at Sunset – I met a local rancher who allowed me access to his land. As I tromped across cacti-filled fields, I found this unforgettable landscape:
Bluebonnets adorn the gentle slopes of the Texas Hill Country in this sunset image taken in early April. Thanks for a local rancher and land manager, I was allowed to visit a few areas of private land that were covered in these favorite wildflowers. The sunset helped the landscape come alive, as well.
3 – Bluebonnets at Sunrise – another bluebonnet image – this time taken at sunrise as the sun dissipated the fog and clouds:
When I set off from my house to photograph this windmill with a foreground of bluebonnets, the sky was overcast and fog made visibility quite limited. I arrived with the sky pretty dark but still had 15 minutes until sunrise. I had just about given up hope when I noticed a little break in some low drifting clouds. Five minutes passed, and suddenly the sky begain to light up in oranges and pinks, and I was escatic with my good fortune. I only had time to capture a few images from that morning. This is my favorite.
4 -Texas Hill Country Waterfall – You couldn’t ask for a better sunset on this perfect evening. I also appreciate a friend and fellow photographer not keeping this beautiful location a secret.
Sometimes you just get lucky. A friend had shown me this location in the Texas Hill Country, but we’d waited to visit until the flow of water was just right. After heavy rains from weeks prior, the river had risen, then dropped. On this night, all elements of the image came together – water, color, wind, and sky. With turquoise falls below me and an amazing sunset peeking through the trees and spreading light rays into the fading thunderheads, I knew this landscape of the Texas landscape of cascading water would be special.
This image is available in sizes larger than 36×24. Please contact me for more information.
5 – South Rim, Big Bend National Park – A 13 mile round trip allowed me access to this amazing view in south Texas:
This view of the southern Chisos Mountain Range in Big Bend National Park comes from the South Rim. As one of the best hikes in Texas, the trek to reach this point is a little over 6 miles, and to capture an image at sunset or sunrise at this location means you either camp or hike in the dark. But the effort is worth it as the landscape that stretches from Texas into Mexico is well worth the effort. Here, a prickly pear blooms in late spring as clouds light up with another beautiful Texas sunset.
6 – Sunset at Port Aransas This one is special not only because of the morning light, but one of my little girls had rolled out of bed to accompany me on a pre-dawn stroll along the beach. I photographed the pier and ocean while she chased sand crabs and even found a starfish:
It was a glorious sunrise along the beach at Port Aransas. This is one of Texas’ favorite beach destinations, and this sunrise shows why. In the foreground, Caldwell Pier stretches more than 1000 feet into the warm gulf waters on this October morning. The only company I had this morning were the gulls and sand crabs and my youngest daughter (who shockingly rolled out of bed to accompany on this morning of work. Behind me, chased sand crabs and even found a star fish.) Doesn’t get much better than this!
7 – Two from the Guadalupe Mountains – The first shows the Autumn colors of McKittrick Canyon; the second shows the inconic El Capitan beneath beautiful light:
Following the trail through McKittrick Canyon, there are places of dense maple trees. At one point, you are nearly surrounded by the beautiful leaves, and in Autumn the forest can turn orange and red with some of the most beautiful fall colors in Texas. The main hike is around 4 miles each way, but you can continue up to ‘the Notch,” a climb of about 1500 vertical feet over another mile or so at which point you can look down into a canyon on each side of you. The hike up is a grunt, but the views are incredible. You can look back down and see the colorful maples as they follow the path of the river.
If you actually read this, thanks! I’d love it if you left a message just to say hi and share any thoughts you might have. The year 2016 was a good one for my family and my business. I look forward to growing even more in 2017. Thanks for your support, Texas!
The Guadalupe Mountains are a long way from my home in the central Texas hill country. But in those remote and ancient mountains is a location I’ve wanted to experience and photograph in the fall – McKittrick Canyon – a winding path through rugged peaks that holds a remnant collection of bigtooth maple trees. Each Autumn, this canyon comes alive with fiery color of the changing maple leaves, a stark contrast to the surrounding desert landscape. I also wanted to hike up to Guadalupe Peak, the tallest point in Texas, and shoot both the sunset and the Milky Way from its lofty summit. I’d made this walk-up before, but this time I wanted to capture the landscape in evening light.
Over the course of four days, I was able to photograph some incredible landscapes, and I’m not sure if an image on a website can really do justice to the rugged beauty of this west Texas area. First, the Butterfield Overland Stage Route provides some great vistas of El Capitan. You have to obtain a key from the National Park to access two gates, but the views are worth it. You will need a four-wheel drive, for sure, as the road is treacherous at times.
I photographed from this location on several occasions and was fortunate to have some great light.
One of my points of emphasis this trip was McKittrick Canyon, the bigtooth maple trees, and “The Notch” that gives a great view of both McKittrick Canyon and South McKittrick Canyon. The maples were beginning to turn, and there were sections of brilliant reds and oranges, yet other areas were still quite green. The weather was beautiful, and with calm winds, photographing the scenery along this trail was a pleasure.
The grunt up to “The Notch” was steep and rocky, but the landscape showcased those granite mountains and jagged peaks both to the north and south. Looking back in the direction I came, the winding flow of red and orange leaves of the bigtooth maples in the distance followed the winding creek as it snaked through the canyon. While resting at the top, I even sat about three feet from a rattlesnake. That was quite the surprise. The round trip to this point and back to the trailhead turned out to be a little over 10 miles and actually wasn’t too bad. I’m glad, because the next evening I’d be trekking up a different trail – this time to Guadalupe Peak and the highest point in Texas.
At 8,751 feet, Guadalupe Peak is the tallest mountain in Texas. The trail to the top is relatively easy – just a gradual walk up gaining ~ 3,000 feet in altitude over 4 miles. The views at the top offer a unique perspective that looks across the Chihuahuan Desert to the east, south, and west. Below the peak is the famous El Capitan, the 8th tallest summit in Texas and one that I’d photographed both that morning and the night before from other locations. I arrived at the top of Guadalupe Peak a little before sunset, enjoying the quiet solitude. While there, I took in a wonderful sunset, and later witnessed the Milky Way at it rolled across the sky in the southwest. The walk down passed quickly, but I was glad to arrive back at the trail head. Trails at night always seem a bit creepier and unknown. I have good flashlights, but I’m always happy to be finished with long hikes at night. The thought of mountain lions is always in the back of my mind.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the less well known of Texas’ two national parks, will reward you if you are willing and able to get out and explore. Those age-old mountains – once part of the Delaware Sea 30 million years ago – hide valleys of lush green trees and crystal clear streams. Trout even survive in some of the pools tucked away in the canyons. Outside those canyon walls is a rugged and unforgiving desert. Both provide opportunities for exploration and contemplation. I hope to return again soon!
It had been several months since I’d been to Port Aransas and Rockport, but when the opportunity arose to shoot for a land developer along beautiful Capano Bay, I packed up the family and made a working vacation out of it. All four days offered amazing sunrises and sunsets. I had tried to time the trip with favorable forecasts, and fortunately colorful skies smiled up on us.
Having my family along with me in Port Aransas was an added bonus. My seven year old daughter willingly rolled out of bed one morning to head down to the beach (chasing crabs and looking for seashells) while I shot Caldwell Pier in the glory of an amazing sunrise. She even found a starfish, something I’d not seen in my previous trips down there.
Capano Bay was nice. If I had a lot of money and wanted to buy some oceanside property that wasn’t in Hawaii or Florida, this would be a good option. One evening after shooting sunset, I sat with my family on the end of a pier. In front of us was a cove with water as smooth as glass. To my girls’ delight, the quiet was broken by two dolphins playing and chasing little fish. We watched until dark, then drove back to our room for the night. I’m sure dolphins danced in their dreams on that evening.
The harbor at Rockport/Fulton is also a nice place to photograph sunrises. With boats in the water on a still morning, the area has many opportunities and angles that await.
A few parting thoughts:
1 – Why are photographers so secretive with their locations? I’d contacted a few locals who work there about various locations but was met with vague generalities and avoidance. Maybe I’m different, but I usually try to help out folks when they are asking about photography options as long as I know they won’t trespass or destroy the environment. I think some people take themselves way too seriously.
2- The ferry between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas – it was fun the first time, but I do get tired of waiting in line, sometimes for over an hour – to take a 10 minute ride. Why don’t you sell the ferries and invest in a long, high bridge that works like the bridge from Corpus Christi to Port Aransas? Good grief that was frustrating.
3 – We ate a great meal at Paradise Key in Rockport. Would definitely go back there for seafood. The Louisiana girl who waited on our table was great, especially with her Cajun accent.
4 – A good time was had by all. I hope to get back down there again.
As I write this blog, My wife, two girls, and I just crossed the Texas-New Mexico border and passed the Happy State Bank in Texline. I just finished up six weeks in Colorado, but I’ll get to that in a moment. For these long drives we usually leave early. This morning was no exception as we departed a little before 3am for the 15 hour trip. And I’m tired but can’t sleep. So I’ll ramble a bit…
First, some good news… I found out yesterday I will have two images in the Texas Highways Magazine 2017 Wildflower Calendar, and one of those will also serve as the cover photo! But as of now I don’t know which image that will be. Still, that is a nice bit of news. Texas Highways also pays well 😀 . A few weeks before that, I received word my Perseid meteor shower image won 1st place in the Texas Hill Country Alliance annual photography contest.
This is nice, too, though I’ve been spoiled, having won the grand prize two of the past four years. And last, this past May I had my first book published by Far Country Press – a collection of images around Austin, Texas. I shared the photography work with another photographer, Jon Rogers – a real artist and super guy.
And now as we plow towards Dalhart (my wife is driving) I have time to reflect on the last month-and-a-half. I had high expectations – both for photography and for personal accomplishments. For at least the past ten years, my best guy friend and I have summited at least one 14,000 foot peak. Overall, we’ve climbed 31 of Colorado’s 54 14ers – all but one together. My home away from home is in Winter Park at about 9,000 feet in elevation. That first week while acclimating to my summer surroundings (my home in the Texas Hill Country rests at around 600 feet in elevation), I usually include one longer hike up to ~ 12 or 13,000 feet. On the first longer hike, I turned an ankle on the way down from an easy trek up to Herman Lake near Georgetown. It was an unremarkable hike and the slip didn’t appear to do noticeable damage. About five days later while trail running back in Winter Park, I did the same thing while cruising downhill and really buggered up my ankle. Something popped and my foot was purple a few days later. Fortunately, I had just started the five mile run! And I hopped back a half mile on my left foot.
I should add here I’m not patient when it comes to being sick or injured. I was forced to cancel a trip to the Elk Mountain Range to scale two 14ers. Several days of icing and elevating the ankle passed, and I was frustrated and ancy to get back out. Much to my wife’s chagrin, I wrapped my ankle, loaded up on painkillers, and met my friend to climb a nearby 13er (Square Top Peak at 13,758 feet). The meds worked and we enjoyed a nice view at the summit complete with mountain goats. But the next day I couldn’t put any weight on it. Now, two weeks later, I’m able to hobble around, but it hurts to even push on the accelerator of our SUV. I’ll give it some more time. Hopefully it will improve.
In the midst of all that, I was able to photograph some of Colorado’s most beautiful landscapes in Rocky Mountain National Park, including wildflowers, elk, and even the Milky Way. To peruse some of my favorites, check out my Colorado Images gallery.
In the meantime, we make our way home and I’m contemplating what I can photograph over the next few months. After six weeks of not seeing any temps above 80, I’m not keen on returning to the heat. Can we just fast forward to autumn?
Dalhart is in the rear view mirror and an early lunch in Dumas awaits.
Safe travels, Texas! 🙂
While 98% of my photography business comes from Texas, I still like to experience other locations. I’ve been fortunate to spend summers in Colorado for the past 25 years – hiking 14ers, fly fishing remote streams, and hiking through fields of Colorado wildflowers. This past June and July were no exception. I’ll always take the opportunity to escape the dog days of a Texas summer and enjoy high temperatures in the 70s for a month or so. Granted, it is hard returning to Texas in August when my kids go back to school and the temps are consistently in the 100s. But I also know Texas is my home, and eventually October will bring cooler weather!
This summer, I spent some time in Rocky Mountain National Park. Up above tree line, I found golden sunflowers (commonly called Old Man of the Mountain) blowing in the breeze, as well as bull elk enjoying a nice sunset.
This sunflower image was a composite of 7 different images stacked together to achieve the best depth and sharpness possible. In the elk image, this regal creature sat there for 20 minutes while I patiently waited for the sun to hit the horizon (this gives you a nice sunburst with certain lenses – in this case an 11-24L). After the sun dipped below the mountain, I changed to a telephoto lens and took a few more close-ups of the elk. When I finished and began packing up. he also stood up and sauntered away. I guess he knew the photo shoot was over!
I also found moose wandering the lower regions of RMNP, seen here in a small stream just off of Trail Ridge Road:
There are so many place to explore in Colorado – long hikes to remote meadows filled with wildflowers; high mountain lakes with islands in the middle of the water; beautiful summits above 14,000 feet. Each year it is a new adventure. Now though, it is time to seek out more unique locations in Texas. The road never ends!
The Texas coast is a favorite beach destination for Texans. It is relatively close and accessible, has affordable accommodations, and has a little sand in which to wiggle your toes. I recently had the opportunity to spend several days down there –primarily to photograph Port Aransas and the beach front in that area.
I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a beach person. And I think I was spoiled in my youth – just out of college – as I backpacked Europe on the cheap, sleeping on warm sands in the Cinque Terre of the Italian Rivera and strolling on the shimmering sands of south France (all the while living out of a backpack and sleeping on trains – just so you know we were not traveling in style!) My wife and I even took several trips like this in our first years of marriage. Two kids later, and those days of carefree trekking are but a vague memory. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. So with the kids out of school, I was able to take my family with me on a little photography expedition along the Texas Riveria!
I certainly don’t know the coastline like I know the Texas Hill Country, but I’ve been to Corpus Christi, Rockport, and Port A a few times. If I were a birder, this would be a paradise for photography. While I don’t have the patience to stalk our feathered friends, I was able to incorporate many of the seagulls and herons into the images. I also obsess over weather forecasts before trips, checking every outlet I can find in the days leading up to departure. For this trip I did not decide to drive to the coast until just a few hours before we left. The timing paid off, and several sunrises and sunsets were filled with oranges, blues, pinks, and other pastel shades.
For this trip, I mainly stayed along the beach near Horace Caldwell Pier (seen below).
This structure is a fishing pier that juts out 1200 feet into the gulf, putting anglers in prime position to hook their next meal. For me, this pier served as a natural point of interest both from the side and from beneath. I always look for symmetry, whether in nature or in man made structures, and this pier offered exactly that.
Along the beach, my girls and I discovered that seagulls are not shy about begging for food, so when we smuggled some extra bread from of an overpriced pseudo-seafood restaurant, the gulls were quite pleased. They were skilled at catching morsels of bread in the air, and I used this trick later in the evening to capture these graceful creatures in flight during a beautiful sunset.
If you have question about the details of these images, please feel free to contact me. I suspect there is much more to Port Aransas than just the beach. And that just opens up the opportunity for another trip – perhaps in the fall when the temperatures are not so hot. In the meantime, safe and happy travels to everyone out there!
Big Bend National Park is home to some of the most amazing views in Texas. I’ve had the opportunity to photograph this remote Texas landscape along the Rio Grande several times, and at the end of each visit I’m left wanting more time, more sunrises and sunsets, and another day to explore the trails and vistas offered here.
The hike to the South Rim of Big Bend is often referred to as the best hike in Texas. Depending on your route or your curiosity, the round trip can often exceed 13 or more miles. While I’ve explored the Chisos Mountains and Chihuahuan Desert, I’d never visited the South Rim until recently. I’d planned to make this hike on other occasions, but poor weather made conditions to photograph the Rim not worth the effort of lugging camera equipment that far. But over the course of a four day visit to Big Bend and using a sunset-conditions predictor program, I finally found a good night to go.
To shoot sunset or sunrise at the South Rim, you either have to camp or hike one direction in the dark. Lugging a camera, several lenses, a tripod, and a star-tracking mount (for Milky Way photographs) took precedence over a tent, so I was left with the only option of hiking back in the dark. So I set out about 4pm on an April afternoon layered in wispy clouds and climbed the 2,000+ vertical feet up to Laguna Meadow. The hike itself isn’t hard. The trail is easy to follow and the uphill isn’t anything daunting. It’s just a long grind with a backpack full of equipment and gatorade. By the time I reached the edge of a 1,500 cliff of the South Rim, I’d only seen hikers going north in the direction of the trailhead. With the remnant of the Chisos stretching out before me and the Rio Grande winding through the desert far below, the landscape that rewarded my efforts inspired a sense of awe and reminded me of how small we are. (I would soon be reminded of this again while shooting the night sky). Finally able to take off the backpack, I set about trying to find the optimal locations for shooting at sunset. Agave, Prickly Pear, Claret Cups, and a view into the desert all clamored for my attention, and choosing was difficult only because of so many options. Ultimately, I decided on four areas – one while the sky was still blue, one for the moment the sun hits the horizon (for the star burst), another to capture the colors of the clouds at sunset, and a last take for the Milky Way finale.
When I shoot at sunset, I usually take 3, 5, or 7 exposures of the same image in order to adjust the foreground and sky accordingly. Some folks do this to create an HDR effect, but I try to bring out the colors while leaving the scene more realistic. I’ll also shoot different focus points in order to make sure the entire image is sharp and consistent. With that said, I was fortunate with the clouds and sunset, as the combination of light and color made the long hike worth it.
This first image is a panorama looking west at the moment the sun fell below the horizon. A path winds along this southwest rim where you can find some amazing panoramic views – even to Santa Elena Canyon on the western edge of the park boundary. This photo is comprised of at least 12 different images, then blended and stitched together to show the true colors of sunset high on this mountain.
The next image comes from the South rim looking south over a portion of ancient remains of the Chisos Mountains. Beyond those peaks, the Rio Grande runs east, serving as a boundary between the Lone Star State and Mexico. Taken about 15-20 minutes after true sunset, this photograph shows a cactus as it hangs onto a cliff 1,500 feet above the desert floor. The foreground was taken as a separate image, then blended with a photograph of the distant mountains to create sharpness throughout. The sky was yet another image in order to bring out the colors of a beautiful Texas sunset.
After this series of photographs, I pulled out the IOptron StarTracker, a device I use to track and shoot the night sky. After aligning the machine with the north star and mounting my camera on top, I set about capturing long exposures of the Milky Way at a relatively low ISO to show points of light as sharp and crisp, just as you’d see if you were standing there. I should note the foreground of this image was taken about 30 minutes after sunset while it was nearly dark, but with still enough light to bring out the definition of the distant peaks. With the foreground and the Milky Way taken at separate times, I then blend the two together back at home and do my best to give it a realistic feel. I feel strongly that a good Milky Way image should contain a strong foreground element. It is a fine line when combining the two (foreground and night sky). I want the viewer to feel the sense of awe with the vastness of the Milky Way while also having a foreground that stabilized the scene. Having the foreground just the right brightness – not too light or to dark – is the conundrum. For these prickly pear cacti, I also used a soft light to slightly increase their illumination.
When you are photographing the Milky Way at Big Bend, you are witness to one of the darkest skies in North America. The stars are truly amazing in this isolated corner of Texas and sparkle with a clarity rarely seen in other places of not only in our state, but the U.S. in general. Underneath a canopy of shimmering light, I embrace that sense of wonder at what the heavens hold and find myself full of ponderings and possibilities.
But then a 7 mile trek in the dark still awaited. The walk back in the wee hours of the morning was uneventful except for the dive-bombing birds and the UFO above a distant ridge. I felt fortunate to have witnessed a beautiful sunset at such a remote and truly Texas landscape. While my time here was brief, I hope to return again one of these days.
If you read this far, thanks!
Happy and Safe Travels.
Vaya con Dios
After several unproductive wildflower hunting trips around central Texas, including east and west of the San Antonio areas, as well as the Texas Hill Country from Fredericksburg to Mason to Llano, I finally discovered some nice fields of bluebonnets. Thanks to a tip from a fellow wildflower chaser, I checked out the areas from Round Mountain, including 962 and 3347 along with connecting side roads.
On one portion of this drive, bluebonnets along the roadsides make for a beautiful and very serene drive (not much traffic at all). I’ve driven this area many times in the past, and admittedly this is not my favorite stretch. But bluebonnet season is quickly coming to a close and times are desperate, so I figured I’d take a chance.
Upon arriving in the general location with about an hour to go before sunset, I was initially disappointed. The bluebonnets were nice, but there were not sweeping vistas nor great landscapes. Both sides of this road were higher than the road itself, making nice views nonexistent. Frustrated, I drove up and down the road, searching for at least some serviceable stops for sunset. I had passed a guy in a truck several times and was getting a little self-conscious. I finally stopped and said Howdy so he wouldn’t think I was a stalker. I explained what I was doing after some small talk. He turned out to be a ranch manager for much of the surrounding land. He went on to say the bluebonnets were beautiful on his land and that I could explore some of the hills if I wanted. Suddenly given hope to salvage the trip, I said thanks and headed for the hills – literally.
Upon rising over the first hill, my effort and good fortune was again rewarded because before me bluebonnets rose and stretched across gentle slopes filled with yucca and cacti. I changed lenses and quickly went to work, opting for my medium wide angle, the 16-35L. I worked the area, then quickly trekked to another location to shoot the moment of sunset. More bluebonnets, more images. (I should note here I shoot between 5 and 7 exposures of each image along with 3 or 4 sets of these exposures at varying depths-of-field, so each image would often be made of anywhere from 15-28 individual photos in order to align all the details. )
With the sun having already fallen below the horizon, I saw one more hill I wanted to shoot, so I ran up and over the terrain and settled at the edge of the blue wildflowers, all the while enjoying the distinct aroma of bluebonnet pollen. I set the tripod low and sat down in order to get a better view. In my haste, I sat squarely on a cactus. I guess I should note it was better sitting on a cactus than a rattlesnake, one of which I’d seen the previous day. Nevertheless, I impaled my posterior with cactus quills that were at least an inch long. In my pain, and with the sky turning all sorts of orange, red, and pink, I consciously thought to myself that I just had to endure the pain for a few minutes, and then I could figure out what to do. With thorns in my backside, I managed to capture the fleeting moment. Then I had to remove the longer thorns. Those were easy. It was the small, barely visible prickles that were the long term pain. I’ll end the story here and just say the ride home was difficult… as was sitting the next day.
A few days later, I made my way to Kingsland and photographed the bluebonnets that sprang up through and within train track rails. As this is private property and I do not cross private property unless invited, I stayed on the boundary and enjoyed a nice sunrise over train tracks and colorful bluebonnets.
I’ve heard there are some fields on 281 north of Burnett and near Lampasas, though I haven’t seen them for myself. While there may be more fields of blue that pop up, I’m beginning to think this season was a bit of a dud based on earlier expectations. I have heard speculation that we could enjoy a nice season of other Texas wildflowers including firewheels, coreopsis, and mexican hats.
In the meantime, watch out for rattlesnakes and aggressive cacti.