Photographing the Milky Way in Texas

I am occasionally asked the process I use to photograph the Milky Way over different Texas landscapes, so I thought I’d take a few minutes in an attempt to explain my thinking process.
First and foremost, I’m a planner. And I also like my sleep. So when I do give up sleep and head out to capture the night sky, I want to leave few things to chance.

If at all possible, I always scout the area I plan on visiting. I like to take a few shots from the location during the day just to see how different compositions look. I don’t want to get home after all-night shooting event and be disappointed at lay of the land on my computer.
Next, a downloadable app called Stellarium really comes in handy. This free program lets you know where and when the Milky Way will appear at any given location and time. It also shows the moon, so you’ll know if the moon could be a hindrance to a dark sky. It has proven invaluable in my nightscapes, and I always reference it before heading out.

As a sidenote, the moon will not necessarily interfere with your night sky shooting, but you need to know what phase and what location it is in. If the moon is more than a quarter showing, I’d wait. If the moon (in any phase) is in the same half of the sky as the Milky Way, I’d again put off shooting until better conditions are available. Personally, I will not shoot the Milky Way if the moon is anywhere in the sky, but I have friends that do.

So with the preliminary work done, I head out. If I’m shooting after sunset (as opposed to early morning), I’ll often arrive at my chosen location just before the sun sets in order to photograph the location during magic hour. About 45 minutes after the sun sets I’ll take some foreground images using the bracketing function (taking several exposures of the same image to use later).

And then transition into night shooting mode. For this, I do a few things:

* switch the camera into bulb mode

* set the ISO initially to 2500 (this will move down to 800 when I’m ready to take the “real” shots”)

* hook up my IOptron Startracker (this entails knowing setting the latitude, aligning the machine with a scope to the North Star, leveling everything with the level-bubbles on both my tripod and Startracker.)

* plug in my remote that allows me to take long exposures

* calibrate my GPS/compass

After everything seems ready, I wait for the stars to appear. When I start seeing stars, I try to manually focus my camera on a star using the “LiveView Mode.” This is the most tedious portion of the evening. Sometimes even finding a star is difficult because you have to have the focus just right, as well as have your camera zoomed onto a bright star. Have patience, and keep plugging away until you finally find a star in your screen. (Make sure autofocus is turned off! I’ve located the star before but forgot to turn off Autofocus. When you press the shutter button, the camera then continues in vain to attempt to find stars. Then you have to repeat the process again.)

Using the compass, I know where the North Star appears, so when I finally do see it, I align the scope. Once finished, I point my camera (on manual focus) towards the Milky Way. With the ISO set to 2500 and the aperture to ~ f/2.8-4 (depending on which lens I use), I take a 20-30 second exposure, check the screen to view my orientation of the Milky Way, and adjust accordingly. At this point in the shoot, I don’t care about the foreground. I try to have a small portion of the horizon showing in my image, but that is strictly for reference. With the Startracker on, I reset the ISO to 800, then start shooting longer exposures. I’ll check the focus again after a longer exposure to make sure there are no star trails or tails, then gradually increase the exposure time up to 3-4 minutes, depending on the ambient light and how much it is lighting up your image.

During these long exposures, I’ll use my phone to time the shot. One very important thing here… while your camera is rolling, please take the time to look up and marvel at the night sky before above you. Sometimes I can get caught up in the technical aspects of this and forget why I’m really out there – to appreciate the beauty of the heavens and share this wonder with others.

One other thing I like to do that helps increase final size is take several images of the Milky Way in a horizontal orientation. I’ll take three images, moving my lens upwards after each shot. Back at home, I’ll stitch these images together producing a large and detailed photograph of the Milky Way.

From here, I’ll go back and blend the Milky Way with the foreground shot taken before dark. I’ll use masks, layers, refine mask, some lightening and darkening as needed, and work on the details until I have my final image. I usually like to leave the foreground pretty bright so the viewer can see the details of the landscape as well as the amazingness of the night sky. This is just a personal preference. Adjust the exposure to your liking.

Here is a finished image from Enchanted Rock State Park in the Texas Hill Country. It is comprised of several shots before dark, along with a vertical stitched panorama of the Milky Way.

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Milky Way over Enchanted Rock 915 : Prints Available

On a perfect September evening in the Texas Hill Country, the Milky Way rolls across the heavens over the inconic Enchanted Rock. This image was fun to make. It first required a walk to the opposite side of this granite rock in the Llano Uplift. The area from which I was shooting is a little off the trail, so just arriving here required some tip-toes through the cacti. After shooting several locations to use for the foreground – different angles of the Rock – I settled in and waited for the stars to appear. With soft clouds lingering on the horizon, the Milky Way did not disappoint. The distant clouds almost seemed like an soft orange version of the Arora Borealis. The exposure for the Milky Way was over 3 minutes, and it seemed you could reach out and touch each star. This image from the Hill Country was taken with a wide angle lense to show the grandness of the night sky across the Texas landscape. On a perfect September evening in the Texas Hill Country, the Milky Way rolls across the heavens over the inconic Enchanted Rock. This image was fun to make. It first required a walk to the opposite side of this granite rock in the Llano Uplift. The area from which I was shooting is a little off the trail, so just arriving here required some tip-toes through the cacti. After shooting several locations to use for the foreground – different angles of the Rock – I settled in and waited for the stars to appear. With soft clouds lingering on the horizon, the Milky Way did not disappoint. The distant clouds almost seemed like an soft orange version of the Arora Borealis. The exposure for the Milky Way was over 3 minutes, and it seemed you could reach out and touch each star. This image from the Hill Country was taken with a wide angle lense to show the grandness of the night sky across the Texas landscape.

And that’s it. There are details aplenty, but you’ll figure those out soon enough – it just takes time, trial, and error. And how you handle many of those finer points is dictated by your likes and preferences.

Enjoy your time outdoors!

~ Rob

Texas Images

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Favorite Texas Photography Locations

I’ve been asked several times where my favorite places are to photograph the Texas landscapes. Folks also want to know my secret places. So what follows are my thoughts on those most preferred locales, in no particular order.

Caddo Lake
Caddo Lake is a sprawling swampland created by the New Madrid earthquake of 1812. This shallow lake is home to the largest cypress forest in the world. Draped in moody Spanish moss, these giant trees brood over the lake like watchmen. A boat is a must-have for this area. The ability to skirt through small channels and cross wide areas of water only three feet deep opens up a plethora of opportunities. Sure, I guess you could try wading, and I’m sure the resident alligators would like that, too!

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Reflections of Caddo Lake 1 : Prints Available

Scenes like this abound at Caddo Lake in east Texas. When the winds are calm, the reflections of cypress in the brackish water appear as if a mirror was resting on the water’s surface. I chose this particular composition because of the added splash of color mixed in with the cypress and spanish moss.

The Gulf Coast
I love the coast, especially the harbors. Yes, the beaches are nice, but I enjoy photographing the life the fishing boats bring at dawn as the chug in with their nightly catch. I follow the seagulls around and try to include their activity in unison with the shrimp boats arrival. My favorite little harbor is the Rockport-Fulton boat docks. If you can catch a colorful sunrise with no wind, you’ll be in coastal photography nirvana.

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Rockport Harbor Sunrise 11 : Prints Available

After almost giving up on any color from the skies on this morning the clouds suddenly lit up in reds and oranges. The little harbor between Rockport and Fulton, Texas, along the gulf coast turned shades of morning. While the colors were beautiful, they only lingered for a few minutes.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
An hour from the nearby town of Van Horn, Guadalupe Mountains National Park is remote and rugged. It’s iconic mountain is El Capitan, though El Cap rests in the shadow of the tallest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak. Rising from the Chihuahuan Desert, El Capitan has served as a landmark for travelers for hundreds of years. If you have the time or motivation, hit the trail and make the easy hike up to the summit of Guadalupe Peak. Other trails await, as well, hold canyon,s, lost maple groves, and even sand dunes.

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El Capitan Sunrise 5 – Guadalupe Mts : Prints Available

El Capitain is probably west Texas’ most well known peak. It is the 8th tallest summit in Texas at 8,085 feet and rests in the shadow of the highest point, Guadalupe Peak. From the road that cuts around this Texas national park, you can pick up a trail that leads you up to this point. Eventually, the path connects with the El Capitan Trail and affords wonderful views of this rugged landscape.

Big Bend National Park
Even more remote than the Guadalupe Mountains, Big Bend rises from the desert and might be my favorite Texas landscape to capture. This national park offers just about everything – springtime bluebonnets, slot canyons, hidden rock formations, a beautiful river, and a diversity of climates ranging from desert Eco systems to lofty, high altitude forests. Big Bend is also known as the dark sky capitol of the country. If you are willing to stay out late or rise early, the Milky Way is yours to both enjoy and photograph. Another appealing aspect of this park, at least to me, is the lack of tourists. I’ve photographed this heart of this park, the Chisos Mountains, from the desert floor with a tripod in the middle of the road and not seen another person for my entire time there. I’ve also been on a dirt road shooting the landscape with rivers of bluebonnets in the foreground for hours. Over several hours, I never saw another soul.

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Big Bend – Bluebonnets and a Rainbow : Prints Available

After a storm over the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, a rainbow appeared in the east as clouds still loomed over the western landscape. Bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers were thankful for the water, and I was thankful for such a beautiful scene.

Texas Hill Country State Parks
I could lump these last two areas into one topic, but the are vastly different. I’m fortunate to live in the Texas Hill Country with easy access to several state parks. each has its own unique personality. Enchanted Rock offers a short climb to its well known granite slab. But most tourists don’t have a chance to explore other parts of the park. Moss Lake, just behind the dome, can yield wonderful reflections at sunrise and sunset. From nearby Turkey Peak you’ll have great views of the distant rolling hills. And in May and June you’ll find the prickly pear cacti’s colorful blooms of red, orange, and gold.

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Enchanted Rock Prickly Pear Evening 1 : Prints Available

Enchanted Rock State Park offers many great sights, but in the summer when the prickly pear are blooming, the blooms can really glow with bright colors. Though technically not a Texas wildflower, I still include these flowers in this gallery because it seems the best place for them!

Along with Enchanted Rock, Lost Maples State Park blazes with reds and gold each fall, but also has great hiking trails open all year.

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Lost Maples State Park – November Stroll : Prints Available

November colors come to Lost Maples State Park, a small refuge for an ancient colony of Red Maples trees. Each Autumn, the colors light up the trails and make for wonderful strolling in the cold, clean air.

Closest to home is Pedernales Falls State Park. The river, canyons, and cypress allow me to always find something new to explore and photograph. Even with varying rises and drops in the river’s level, new compositions and angles continuously emerge.

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April Sunrise 1 – Pedernales Falls : Prints Available

I didn’t think I’d get much light this morning, but for a few brief moments a portion of the sky over the Texas Hill Country and Pedernales Falls State Park lit up in pinks and reds. This little park close to my house is where I go when I need a respite from the world.

Texas Hill Country Wildflowers
There is no shortage of information for springtime in the Texas Hill Country. In years when the rainy weather has been generous, especially in April and May, the roadsides and fields come alive with bluebonnets, firewheels, coreopsis, and dozens of other wildflowers. The best locations vary according to local rainfall amounts, as does the best time of month to witness the wildflower explosion, but a few of my favorite areas are the off-the-beaten paths and county roads near Fredericksburg, Mason, and Llano.

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Texas Reds – Wildflowers at Sunset 1 : Prints Available

The last sunlight of day streams across a lonely field of Texas wildflowers – this time red firewheels. On a stretch of dirt road north of Llano in the Hill Country, scenes like this were everywhere in May. The hard part was picking a location for the moment of sunset.

If you’ve read this far, thanks! Feel free to peruse my Texas galleries.
If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact me. I’ll help if I can.

Zen Pools of Enchanted Rock in the Texas Hill Country

The views from the top of Enchanted Rock are incredible. You can see for miles and miles across the rugged Texas landscape that is the hill country. While these vistas are breathtaking, rare ecological gems are often scattered across this wide granite uplift. Formed by weathering and erosion over thousands of years, vernal pools form in the depressions in the granite. Also called soil islands, these small water collections can provide life to a broad range of plant and animal life. Tadpoles, insects, and even fairy shrimp can inhabit these pools. As the rains come and go, these vernal pools are often changing shape, as well.

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Zen Pools of Enchanted Rock 2 : Prints Available

On a picture perfect late afternoon in the Texas Hill Country, the vernal pools at Enchanted Rock are full of water. Rains had fallen for weeks, leaving these little sanctuaries strewn across the granite summit of this famous Texas landscape. Within the small bodies of water, the depressions teemed with life. Some of these pools resembled the yin and yang, so I named them the Zen Pools of Enchanted Rock.

On a recent walkabout at Enchanted Rock State Park, I was struck by the color, the beauty and shapes of these pools after a very wet spring. A few of these pools resembled the Tao – the yin and yang of the zen.

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Zen Pools of Enchanted Rock 1 : Prints Available

Vernal Pools are an important part of the ecological system at Enchante Rock State Park. This gem in the Texas Hill Country offers so many different places to explore. In this Texas landscape, at the higest point in the iconic Llano uplift, the pools formed by depressions in the granite give life to many plants and even animals – tadpools were everywhere in this calm pool.

Another looked like a heart or an arrow.

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Heart Pool at Enchanted Rock 1 : Prints Available

Thousands of years of erosion atop the granite summit on Enchanted Rock leave areas called Vernal Pools. These collections of water pop up after rains and provide sustenance for both plant and animal life. They also provide beautiful subjects for photography. Just as the weather changes constantly, so goes the ebb and flow of the water level, leaving always unique shapes for these ecologically important pools. I named this little depression the Heart Pool, though it will surely look different in a week or so. This is sunset across the Texas Hill Country and this rugged landscape.

And still others housed grasses that stood several feet high. These vernal pools can be found throughout the park, but are most noticeable on the top of Enchanted Rock and Little Rock.

To see more, please visit my Texas Wildflower Gallery.
And follow my current photographic adventures on my Images from Texas Facebook page.

Happy travels!
~ Rob