It seems we are again experiencing a disappointing bluebonnet season. What looked like a promising beginning to a wildflower spring has again been thwarted by lack of rain and higher than normal temperatures. I’ve driven across the hill country the last few week, and I’ve received location report from other trusted photographers, and the outlook is grim.
However, there are some stellar displays of bluebonnets and paintbrush along the roadsides, especially on 29 between Llano and Mason, and on 16 north of Llano.
On my first visit to this particular bend in the road along Highway 29 between Mason and Llano, this is the sunset I found. The bluebonnets in the Texas Hill Country were not great in 2017, but roadside displays of these wildflowers and indian paintbrush were quite colorful on this little stretch of highway.
Another nice location is in Marble Falls on 281 heading north out of town. The iconic old stone building has a field of bluebonnets in the front which makes for a great photograph. I was there one morning last week surrounded by many other folks out enjoying the display – and this was at sunrise! Later that morning as I drove by the number of people taking photos had grown by 3 or 4 times.
This week, the Hill Country is forecast to receive some much needed rain. If this comes to pass, there may be a boost in bluebonnet and other wildflower coverage in fields. We’ll wait and see what happens!
Last week, I traveled to one of my favorite locations – Big Bend National Park. I had gone in hopes of capturing bluebonnets with the Chisos Mountains in the distance. However, the only blooms to be found were along the road, and these were pretty sparse. Still, I worked with what I found:
Big Bend National Park has its own bluebonnet, and here the lupines rest silently in the glow of a March sunrise. In the distance, the Chisos Mountains rise in the cool morning air. The colors and cold air didn’t last long, though. Clouds quickly gave way to clear skies and the temperatures soared into the upper 80s… just a typical day in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Some of my go-to locations like drainages around Tuff Canyon and River Road East were barren of any blooms. I did enjoy a night hike under the full moon to the top of the Lost Mine Trail. I enjoy long exposures when the moonlight illuminates the foreground and brings to life an otherwise hidden valley.
Under the light of the full moon, Big Bend National Parks glows softly. In the distance is Juniper Canyon and the Chisos Mountains, and further is Mexico.
I had made the trek up to this point, a relatively easy 2.4 miles (one way) to photograph this location at sunset, then await the full moon as it rose in the east. The lighting was surreal and the hike back to the car was just a bit eerie and mystical.
In the lower elevations west of the Chisos, the prickly pear cacti were just beginning to bloom.
The last light of sunset lights up the rocky ledges high atop Cerro Castellan on the western slope of the Chisos Mountains. This view of Big Bend National Park shows one of the many Prickly Pear Cacti – this one blooming with beautiful floweres – on the desert floor. But don’t get too close – those prickly pear are well armed with long and sharp thorns!
While not technically considered a wildflower, these blooms can still be stunning.
If I find any wildflowers, I’ll be sure to add some information here. In the meantime, enjoy those colorful roadside displays of flowers – they are still very pretty!
Via Con Dios and safe travels!
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!
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.
While it seems most folks are eagerly anticipating the advent of wildflower season here in the Texas Hill Country, my wife and I sneaked out of town for a few days and found ourselves cruising at nearly light speed (exactly 80mph in case any officers are reading this) west on I-10, then south through Alpine to Terlingua and eventually the Chisos Mountains. If you’ve made the drive from the Hill Country to this area, or heck, anywhere for that matter, you know it is a long one.
I had planned on making the hike to the South Rim of Big Bend National Park on my first afternoon to photograph sunset, but because of inefficiency from certain folks the area, my start time was delayed, and with a 6+ mile hike in front of me, that meant I’d be arriving at the South Rim after dark. No good. So instead, I made the short trek up the Lost Mines Trial and enjoyed one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen in a long time. I was happy to be there, but also had some angst and a little irritation about not being out at the South Rim for such a colorful event.
Big Bend has a lot to offer – great hikes to unusual rock formations, a variety of ecosystems ranging from desert landscapes to small forests with even a few remnant aspen groves still clinging to the cliff in the upper elevations, and unique wildlife such as mountain lions, black bears, javalinas and an plethora of birds including roadrunners at every twist and turn of the trail. I love this park and it keeps me coming back for more. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, it can be pretty harsh. While I was fortunate to enjoy a few good sunsets and sunrises, I also encountered 35-50mph winds and near freezing temperatures. That made outdoor activities slightly less enjoyable, and at times photography proved virtually impossible.
Last year I ventured out to Big Bend around this same time and found wonderful areas of bluebonnets. This year, the bluebonnets were sparse. However, the prickly pear cacti were beginning to bloom, so I tried to take advantage of that at sunset (You can’t shoot prickly pear blooms at sunrise because they close at night!). In the lower elevations of the surrounding Chihuahuan desert between the Chisos and Santa Elena Canyon, several areas showed off yellow and orange blooms from Texas most prominent cactus.
With the winds often gusting, these little blooms seemed the best thing to add to the foreground because they are much sturdier than most flowers, and that worked in my favor. Nevertheless, photography was challenging as I tried to make the most of a difficult situation.
While the return home seemed much longer than the drive out there and with the disappointment of not making it to the South Rim, I am already hoping to return in late April or May- just depends on the weather.
Now, though, I turn my attention to Texas wildflowers. I’ve heard there are already Easter colored fields south of San Antonio. So I need to charge up the batteries and hit the road.
About 25 minutes before sunrise, if high clouds linger across the sky and an unfettered path for sunlight appears in the east, colors of red, pink, orange and blue can fill the sky. And just after that is about a 10 to 15 minute period when the once vibrant sky’s colors fade and it appears almost washed out until the sun finally rises over the horizon. It is during this fleeting time of quiet that my mind is set free from my daily obligations that often clutter my thoughts.
Moments like this are special. In much of my adult life some of my fondest memories are times spent outdoors. Looking back at the days of my youth, I would spent all the daylight hours playing outside – searching for craw-dads, playing sports, and walking creekbeds. I never noticed how hot it got in Texas in the summer. After college in Austin, I worked a summer job in a Colorado mountain town, escaping every afternoon with my best friends to explore rivers and fly fish high, remote streams in search of cutthroat and rainbow trout. One of those friends is no longer around, though I do miss him. Another has remained and we still spend some time each summer hiking our own bucket list of Rocky peaks, though other duties – my work and family responsibilities in Texas – have cut down that free time considerably.
So in mornings like this when my photographic treks find me alone along these scenic rivers that wind through the Texas Hill Country – in between the early morning colors and the sunrise – the sounds of water bring back memories of my life’s time. The words and conversations of those bygone days – and those times with friends – have faded. But sometimes I can hear the laughter. With a soft gurgling the swirls of the river flow around and over the rocks, and in those sounds I can almost follow behind the laughter and slide into the past. And just as quickly the light, the colors, and the faint emotions slip past my sitting spot and flow with the waters downstream and disappear.
In those quickly passing moments that seem to last both a few seconds and an hour, I’m reminded of the precious moments we share. But the river brings me round again and soon the brilliant glow on the horizon gives way to a light so bright I can’t look at it directly. After seven clicks of my camera’s shutter and with sunlight spreading across the canyon floor, I know my time in this moment is done and it is time to return home. This beautiful morning I’ll remember, though, and I’ve still a long way to go.
This past week, I had the opportunity to spend time in the Texas Panhandle, primarily Palo Duro Canyon State Park, as well as a few side trips around Amarillo, Texas. The late November weather turned out to be superb, and I was fortunate to enjoy some amazing sunrises and sunsets while exploring the canyon.
My family came with me on this trip, and that meant no camping. Instead, we stayed in Canyon, just ~ 12 miles from the park entrance. For my gear, I was shooting with the newish Canon 5DSr. I brought a few lenses, as well – the 11-24L, 16-35IIL, 24-105L, and the 70-200ISL. For a majority of the trip, I only used the 11-24 and the 24-105. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express – 4 adults, 2 kiddos. It was not bad at all, though I’m not a fan of their breakfast. However, I was usually gone when breakfast started at 6am and by the time I returned to the hotel, I caught the tail-end of the morning service. So I stuck to my Apricot Kind bars for early morning food.
One thing to know about Palo Duro is that the entrance gates are closed overnight and don’t open until 8:00am. Having done some work for Texas Parks and Wildlife in the past, I was able to obtain permission to enter the park early in order to photograph sunrise. This made a huge difference, allowing me to photograph during the morning magic hour when light is soft and beautiful.
* I should add here that I stopped by the Visitor Center to ask a few questions about hikes and such when we first arrived at the park. An older woman who was working seemed to not particularly enjoy her job that much. She questioned all my plans, and even said she didn’t understand why I wanted to come into the park before 8am – the gates were closed for a reason! She went on to add that there was nothing to photograph before sunrise. “Why would you want to get here so early. There’s nothing here worth seeing that early!” I don’t think she should have been a front-person for Palo Duro, as she obviously didn’t appreciate the wonders this place has to offer.
Anyway, the flexibility of the park rangers with allowing me an early entrance each morning made the trip worthwhile. Otherwise, it would been not nearly as productive. The sunrise from the Visitor Center that overlooks the Canyon was colorful – a nice gradient from orange to blue about 40 minutes before sunrise, then transitioning to some nice clouds by the time the sun showed itself for the first time. But during this in-between, my hands were nearly frozen. The temperature was in the upper 20s at this location, and later as I drove through the valley floor, the thermometer read 21 degrees. Yikes!
After finishing up the sunrise shoot, I returned to the hotel to pick up the wife and kids, then came back to take them hiking. We explored the Big Cave (an easy walk for young kids that the Visitor Center Welcome Woman poo-pooed – and my kids loved it), and some other trails. I also came away with some late morning light on Capitol Peak, one of the well-known points in the park. Evening found my wife and me hiking to the Lighthouse. This famous landmark is by far the most popular trail it the park, and for good reason. It provides you a 6-mile round-trip walk on an orange clay path through magnificent and colorful canyon walls and rock formations. You finish the last .3 miles going uphill, scrambling part of the way, to reach the base of the iconic structure. From this vantage point, the views stretch for miles through the distant canyon. And sunset did not disappoint, either. Behind me, to the east, clouds lit up in pink pastels. In front of us, to the west, the sun turned the sky brilliant orange, complementing the orange rock of the Lighthouse itself. We lingered until nearly dark, enjoying the scene and solitude. And I should note that while we passed folks on our walk (all of whom were heading back to the start of the trailhead), we did not encounter another person for the last mile of our walk to the Lighthouse, nor did we see anyone the remainder of the evening. That peace and quiet was pretty special, for sure. Having a place like that all to oneself, even for a few hours, is hard to top.
But time moves us along, and eventually we were back on the trail, walking in the dark. I paused to shoot the Lighthouse from a distance with the Milky Way behind it, then again at Capitol Peak to take a long exposure of the mountain as the nearly-full moon had risen and was illuminating the red and orange rock in a wonderful soft glow.
The next morning found me back at sunrise again, but this time the temperatures rose into the high 20s and low 30s, so I guess it wasn’t too bad. Another glorious sunrise welcomed the day, and soon we were off exploring.
I would like to come back here again in the spring when the flowers are blooming, and perhaps in the fall when the trees are changing colors as they head into winter.
After leaving the Palo Duro Canyon area, we made side trips to the ecclectic Cadillac Ranch just west of Amarillo. This field that is on the old Route 66 has ten old Cadillacs that have been buried nose first into the dirt. Funded by an eccentric millionaire and created by a San Francisco art hippy group called the Ant Farm, this “exhibit” is free and open to the public – and spray-painting the old cars is welcome and even encouraged.
Heading east of Amarillo, I paused to photograph a few cotton fields. From the highway, the area looked like snow had fallen, but in reality the cotton was white and ready for harvesting. I met a rancher who welcomed me onto his land, so I spent a little time photographing this uniquely Texas landscape.
From here, another sunset found me shooting bales of hay under some wonderful skies lit up by the half-light of evening.
All in all, it was a fun, relaxing, and successful trip. What’s next?
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.
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.
The second week in August each year is one of the weeks I usually am wanting for more sleep. I love the Perseid Meteor shower and look forward to the challenge of trying to capture this unique annual event. The Perseids of 2015 presented a great opportunity – relatively clear skies and a new moon – meaning no light pollution from the moon so the meteors would show up even brighter. My goal was to bring this amazing event to my audience, and here is the back story to my nighttime adventure…
I ventured out two times this past week to photograph the Perseids – once to Pedernales Falls State Park in the Texas Hill Country and once to the iconic 360 Bridge outside of Austin, Texas. For this short blog, I’ll focus on the Pedernales location. I know Pedernales Falls like the back of my hand. I live close by and am over there for sunrise or sunset several times each month. Still, I wanted to scout out a perfect location that had an interesting foreground and offered a chance to include much of the night sky, as well. Last weekend, I spent sunrise and sunset at the state park with a camera and my gps. The Perseids radiate from the northeast section of the sky – generally from the middle of the Milky Way. After several miles of walking around, I found what I wanted – a portion of a small canyon into which the river flowed that faced northeast. I also took several test images with different lenses to see what look I wanted. After scrutinizing the test images, I decided to go with my super-wide angle – the 11-24L to give me more of the rugged landscape and more of the night sky.
On Thursday morning, I awoke about 1:00am, dragged myself out of bed, drove to the park, and walked to the river and upstream about 20 minutes to my chosen location. The camera was ready to go by 2:00am. I would like to note here a few observations. First, I’ve never seen anyone in the parking lot when I go out before sunrise, but there were 6 or 7 cars there, so it was nice to see other folks out enjoying the light show. To the two college girls trying to find their way down to the river without a flashlight in the complete dark…. hope you made it! I was happy to help guide you if you hadn’t had to go back to your car for your contraband! But I wasn’t waiting for around. Second, I saw more animals here this night than I’ve ever seen at one time before. They included a wild hog, a racoon, an opossum, a jackrabbit, an armadillo that I almost tripped over on the trail, a fox, several deer, and what I think was a porcupine (are there porcupines out there? sure looked like one). I might have even seen a chupacabra, but can’t be 100% sure. It was dark!
Moving along… I aligned my star-tracker to the north star, set up the camera, took a few base images of the milky way, then set everything to run on auto-pilot for the next several hours. For those interested in the technical aspects… the base Milky Way images were shot at f/5.6 ISO 800 for about 3 1/2 minutes. The meteors were shot on f/4, ISO 4000, on a continuous 30 second interval – all using the new Canon 5DS-R. The foreground was shot later in the morning as the sun’s light was just beginning to light up the landscape. I believe that image was a 30 second image at ~ f/16.
After I set up the automatic timer, I laid back on the rock and watched the fireworks, which were quite amazing. Also, my 5-hour energy drink was my friend this night!
Upon returning home, I reviewed the 180+ images, pulling out the ones that contained meteors, then aligned and stacked them in photoshop. After I was happy with that look, I aligned and merged the meteors into the base Milky Way image, then merged that with the foreground, creating what you see below. A lot more went into the final photograph – color balance, some noise reduction, etc., but this was basically my work flow.
I think when you are alone in the middle of the night under the Milky Way images, you can’t help but question our place in the Universe. We are so small and it is unimaginably big. I won’t soon forget the beauty I experienced that night – time to reflect and time to look ahead, but mostly time to just be in the moment and enjoy God’s creation not seen by many.
And that was my night.
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I was recently asked to help judge a photography exhibition. Some of the work was spectacular, full of emotion and life. Others, not so much. So what makes a good image? I’ve been asked this question many times, and this recent experience gave me pause to think about the topic a little more in-depth. So I figured I’d share my thoughts on the subject and solicit other opinions as well. And for this exercise, I’m primarily referring to landscape and skyline photography.
I think the technical aspects of an image are important:
– correct exposure: no underexposed darks or blown highlights unless intentional
– correct or intended focus and sharpness…. This can include a range in depth of field from a single focal point to a sharpness from the foreground to the far distance.
After the basics, the composition should be considered:
– the subject of the image should be obvious, whether a single object such as a bluebonnet or a vast Texas landscape like the Chisos Mountains.
– leading lines… This is very important for me. I like line, angles, curves, and anything that leads the eye to guide me to the subject. I also want those lines and angles, whenever possible, to intersect with the corners of the image exactly. These lines could be composed of roads, water, buildings, rocks, and anything that allows the eye to flow.
Within the composition of an image, I look for elements that make up a scene.
– first, unless I’m going for a minimalist approach, a sky with good, if not dramatic clouds, is a must. I shoot mostly at sunrise or sunset and always hope for pleasing colors, but even a nice blue sky with high wispy clouds can be pretty nice and can complement a nice foreground, often making an average image much stronger. I also always know when and where the moon will appear. Often, the appearance of our moon can enhance an otherwise dull sky.
– foreground element(s)… When I photograph a field of bluebonnets, I really like to have a few of the flowers up close to show the detail. For this, I’ll often shoot several images for varying depth from front to back and blend them together on photoshop. Other foreground elements could include rock formations, trees, logs, and even silhouetted people.
– background elements… In most cases, I want a sharpness throughout the scene, especially for those vast Texas landscapes. I want folks to see what I saw and feel the wonder of the scene.
When all of these factors are taken into account, you have potential for a strong image. That being said, the most important aspect of a photograph is the impact it has on the viewer. Does it capture your attention? Does it make you pause or think “wow.” Does it tell a story? It can be technically perfect, but if the image leaves the viewer void of emotion, it loses its impact.
In my recent experience of judging photographs, I saw several images that showed superior planning and execution, but came away feeling nothing. Conversely, some of my highest scoring images had minor technical or compositional issues, but left me gazing longer, wanting to know more about the story being presented. Emotional appeal – or impact – makes or breaks an image.
I like to think I practice what I write. And I know some of my images come up short. But many times what I think are average photographs turn out to be best sellers. The images I like the most barely get a second glance. So no matter what anyone says, if you enjoy photography, keep on shooting. Unless you are utterly daft at the point and shoot, you’re sure to appeal to someone!