Sometimes I have these grand visions for how things should work – whether it is my own kids’ birthday parties, a Disney family vacation, or a nighttime landscape with the comet NEOWISE hanging over the canyons of Palo Duro.
On one occasion, a colorful birthday cake for my then 7-year-old daughter ended up face down on the floor of a local pizza joint. When we flipped it over, the mix of colors would have made Monet blush. Five little girls looked on in horror while the one I loved cried. But it was a birthday party they won’t forget! On another occasion, our family was at Disney World when my five-year-old had a meltdown on a boat and actually laid down in the middle of the aisle. Folks coming on board had to step over her. My wife just put her head down to hide. It was later on that we realized my youngest daughter had a phobia about being on the water and on a boat. But we cemented those issues!
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I spent most of the summer photographing the Rocky Mountains and even a few days on the more arid western slope near Grand Junction. The time in the mountains allows me to escape the summer heat of Texas and the raging Covid pandemic in the south while enjoying the beauty of cooler mountain climates at elevations above 9,000 feet.
And this leads me back to my vision for the comet. I’d planned on leaving Colorado for my trek back to Texas and stop over at one of my favorite places, Palo Duro Canyon. I wanted to see the Comet NEOWISE in the dark skies of the panhandle and photograph this rare event from somewhere in the red rocks of this state park. I’d already photographed NEOWISE from Berthoud Pass, Colorado, in the early morning hours, and now wanted to see it from my home state.
That was as far as my vision would take me. Shortly before I departed on the 16 hour drive back home to the Texas Hill Country, I found out Palo Duro Canyon was not allowing visitors in the park after 10pm. It was July 22, and NEOWISE was only visible in the evening and best seen around 10pm. Ironically, about the same time as my planned departure from Colorado, I had a client contact me wanting an image of NEOWISE over the canyon. Bummer.
So I got creative.
First, on the evening of July 23, I stopped in west Texas and shot the night sky using my star tracker. This instrument allows the camera to track the stars and photograph the night sky using a long exposure. Using this device results in stunning, sharp pinpoints of light for the stars and little noise in longer exposures. The comet was clearly visible, hanging just beneath the Big Dipper. Setting in the western sky, the crescent moon added a surprise element in this photograph taken on July 23.
But I couldn’t get into Palo Duro Canyon State Park. So I did the next best thing. I’ve visited this area many times in the past, and I had a RAW file image that showed the canyon facing northwest, that was exactly what I was planning on shooting. With full disclosure to the client, I used this as the base image and the star-tracked night sky to show the comet. An hour of Photoshop magic later, this was my creation straight from the canvas of God…
From the night of July 23, 2020, this is a composite image of the Comet NEOWISE over the beautiful red rocks of Palo Duro Canyon. The foreground was taken from the summit of Capitol Peak after the sun had faded. The comet fanned out beneath the Big Dipper. Just a little after sunset, and the crescent moon fell behind the western horizon.
I know some photographers are purists, and I am most of the time, as well. But I have no issues with dabbling in the creative universe when a client asks. After all, I have two young mouths to feed and a wife to keep happy. I don’t want to be a starving artist. So far so good.
My grand vision of this particular scene didn’t play out exactly how I’d intended, but the end result was pretty similar to what I had in mind. No one cried nor threw a fit, and no birthday cakes were overturned. While a few obstacles presented themselves, I’m still pretty happy with the final image in all of its creative glory. The purists may throw stones, but I’m not hungry here
Stay safe, Friends.
~ Rob Images from Texas
Several years ago, I was shooting a pasture of colorful wildflowers through a barbed-wire fence east of San Antonio in a rural area. I never trespass, so I had my tripod and camera pointing through the barbed-wire surrounding the property. I had driven an hour and a half to photograph this beautiful scene at sunrise, and the sky was just beginning to show some color. About that time, a local sheriff pulled up and asked me what I was doing. He said a neighbor across the street had noticed my suspicious activity and called 911. That’s when I discovered in my sleepy state, I’d left my wallet, money, and driver’s license at my house back in Dripping Springs. I explained to the sheriff what I was doing – that I was a professional photographer here to take in this colorful landscape. He asked for ID, and thankfully he accepted that while I didn’t have my license, I did know the number. He continued to question me as I watched the sky begin to show some nice orange and pink color. Finally, I asked if we could pause and let me take some shots. I explained that I had no intention to go inside the fence, but the moment was passing quickly and I needed to get to work! He acquiesced, and even said something to the effect that yes, that is a really nice field of flowers. He eventually left me to my work, and I was left to enjoy the sunrise in peace. Whew!
The morning’s collection of photographs worked out well, and a few years later one of the panorama images became a 120×15 feet wall mural in the Archer Hotel in the Domain in north Austin.
This panorama of Texas wildflowers comes from a little road near New Berlin, just east of San Antonio. The colors of 2014 were amazing, offering a rainbow of purples, reds, yellows, and blues.
Fast forward to just a few weeks ago… I received a contact through my business website from that land owner. I was initially thinking… oh no… what is going on? But the owner just expressed his enjoyment of my work. After exchanging a few email pleasantries, he invited me to shoot on his land, saying the flowers were at peak and it was the best he’d seen… and even gave me the gate code.
I can say that most of my best wildflower images – either a mix of flowers or simply bluebonnets – have come from private land owners inviting me to shoot inside the fence and on their land. This time would be no different. I visited the location two times this spring – once for sunset and another for sunrise. The field contained a mix of Indian paintbrush (red), bluebonnets (blue), phlox (violet and purple), gold (Missouri primrose, coreopsis, and tickseed), and even a few daisies (white). For the evening visit, I was fortunate to have beautiful clouds and, despite the forecast, a pretty nice sunset that had color for about five minutes.
A sea of color seemed to stretch to the horizon in this wildflower photograph from New Berlin, Texas. I hadn’t visited or photographed this area in several years, mostly because the wildflower bloom had been disappointing. However, I was invited down from my home in the hill country by a land owner, saying the field was the best he’d seen in many years. So I made the trek down and enjoyed this marvelous sight for an evening. The sky offered fleeting yet amazing color overhead as wildflowers of several varieties, including bluebonnets, phlox, groundsel, coreopsis, paintbrush, and Missouri primrose filled this pasture. I spent an hour shooting this scene, and each direction I turned offered another amazing view.
On my return a week later for sunrise, I awoke about 3:30am, loaded the car, and drove the 1.5 hours in the dark in order to photograph the Milky Way as it towered over the southeast horizon. An hour later, I’d enjoy the first light of day.
On a very cold early morning, the Milky Way rises in the southern horizon and a pasture of colorful, frozen wildflowers. Taken in the rural community of New Berlin, Texas, this image is a blend of several images and highlights the variety of wildflowers, including bluebonnets, coreopsis, tickseed, phlox, and Indian paintbrush. The Milky Way was taken about an hour before sunrise using a star tracker as a trace of orange began to appear in the east. The star tracker allows the camera to track the stars during a long exposure – usually three to five minutes, thus eliminating star trails and allowing for sharp, pinpoint stars. The foreground was taken using another long exposure about 25 minutes before sunrise in order to add color and definition to the landscape. The final image was created on photoshop to show what our eyes can see but what the camera cannot capture.
This night sky wildflower image was taken on private land with permission from the owner.
As I was shooting in the middle of the field, I did notice the across-the-street neighbor pull out of his long dirt driveway. It seemed he paused much longer than necessary. Great, I thought… Mr. Local Sheriff will be here soon. Fortunately, no constable showed up this time.
Later that morning, with temperatures in the low 30s, I witnessed a brilliant orange and red sunrise – as good as I could have hoped for. Frost covered the ground that morning, and many of the delicate petals were frozen together. Some of the more fragile flowers – the primrose and coreopsis – appeared droopy from the weight of the frost. Still, as the air began to warm, the flowers grew stronger – and my fingers began to work better, too!
A red patch of Indian paintbrush highlights this wildflower photograph taken near New Berlin, Texas. The sunrise was amazing on this morning, painting the sky in red and orange strokes. On the ground, a thin layer of frost covered the delicate petals of red, yellow, and purple as pre-dawn temperatures dropped into the low 30s. It was cold out there, but the landscape was covered with soft colors all the way to the tree line.
This wildflower photograph was taken on private land with permission from the owner.
Just a week before, another land owner invited a fellow photographer and me onto her land. About 60 miles away from the aforementioned area. Her land, too, was covered in a rainbow of color. She was kind and met us at 7:00am at the gate of her long and fairly hidden driveway – just in time for a 7:30am sunrise. Her field was colored with reds, blues, and golds and even had a windmill.
A field of Texas wildflowers and a windmill at sunrise help created this amazing landscape. Taken on a cold morning in Atascosa County, the morning was painted with bluebonnets and Paintbrush with a sprinkling of gold mixed in. The sun had just cleared the horizon, forming a sunburst as light rays spread into the blue sky overhead. It was a memorable and colorful morning.
This wildflower photograph was taken on private land with the permission of the land owner.
The morning was a bit breezy, so I had to shoot at a lower f-stop and take several images focused at different depths. Without going into too much detail, aligning and blending these layers had to be manually done (Photoshop would help with flowers were in different locations in each image.) Still, despite the tedious work, I am pleased with the finished product. All of the images could be printed at 60×40, and the panoramas could go quite larger. The sunrise was nice, and I came away with a few keepers from from this visit.
From Atoscosa County near Poteet, Texas, south of San Antonio, this panorama shows a field of colorful wildflowers at sunrise. With a windmill as the backdrop, red paintbrush, blue bluebonnets, and golden groundsel bring vibrance to a beautiful morning.
This image is available in larger and custom sizes.
I don’t take the kindness of these folks lightly. I appreciate their trust in me, and I always offer a print of their choice to show my gratitude. I try to capture the beauty of their land as well as the backroads of my home state as best I can.
I enjoy photographing wildflowers when the blooms are nice, and I don’t mind getting up early, staying out late, driving long distances, and plowing through laborious work in photoshop. And while I love bluebonnets and their unique aroma, I really prefer the variety of colors from fields containing a mix of many different wildflowers. Later this year, I’ll hunt wildflowers in Colorado, but I haven’t seen anything there yet that can compare to some of the fields I’ve witnessed in the last few weeks. And I know the fullness of these recent blooms east and south of San Antonio don’t happen in too many years.
Just north of Poteet, Texas, and south of San Antonio, wildflowers of red, blue, gold, and purple fill a field on a cool spring afternoon. This colorful landscape is made up of groundsel (gold), bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, and phlox (the small purple blooms). A windmill rises in the distance to complete a beautiful spread of vibrant color.
Now, though, it is time to turn my attention and my 4Runner towards the hill country around Llano, Mason, and San Saba – and to bluebonnets along the backroads that surround these little towns. Right now, bluebonnets are fading because of the lack of substantial rain. But with rain in the forecast in less than 48 hours (fingers crossed), the moisture may rejuvenate the bluebonnets season from its current rapid decline.
In the meantime, safe travels to everyone. Get out and smell the bluebonnets!
I’ve enjoyed many fun experiences as a professional photographer, from hiking in Rattlesnake Canyon in Colorado to standing on the South Rim in Big Bend National Park. One of those rewarding experiences that required a lot less work was shooting the moon – the Super Blood Wolf Moon.
At 11:12pm on January 20, 2019, the Super Blood Wolf Moon reached its peak over the Hill Country, glowing an eerie reddish-orange hue. Several events transpired on this night to create this rare view. The Super Moon was in view – when the full moon is closest to earth at ~ 223,000 miles; the Wolf Moon – a full moon in the month of January; and a total lunar eclipse – the earth coming between the sun and moon – causing the Blood Moon. This unique alignment of celestial events made for a great lunar show on this cold winter night. The next total lunar eclipse will not occur until May 26, 2021.
A few nights ago, January 20, the earth passed between the sun and moon, bringing on a total lunar eclipse. At the time, the full moon was closer to the earth than usual (~ 223,000 miles away). This occurrence is known as the super moon, and during this time the moon appears 14% larger and 30% brighter. Since these lunar events happened in January, the “Wolf” title was included, as well, since a full moon in January is called by this name (in American Folklore).
On this night, I didn’t have to travel far – just a few miles from my house in the Texas Hill Country. The walk from my car covered about 20 yards – a far cry from the 14 mile round trip to the South Rim in Big Bend!
I had scouted out this location earlier. Using The Photographer’s Ephemeris and Stellarium, both online apps, I knew when and where the moon would be when the eclipse reached totality. I nearly always include a foreground in my images – something to catch the viewer’s interested – and for this rare evening I chose an old windmill. I figured since I can shoot almost straight up to catch the blades of the windmill as well as the moon, I could find a composition that would capture both a portion of the windmill and the blood moon. I also wanted to have the foreground fairly far away so I could use my zoom lens, thus making the moon appear larger against the dark blades of the windmill. This effect is just changing perspective, but often makes the moon more dramatic.
So after checking out the location earlier in the day, I headed back a little before the peak of totality which was set to occur at 11:12pm. Practically laying on my back in order to shoot nearly straight up, I took several images, making sure I had everything aligned to my liking. I probably shot 50+ images over the next 15 minutes, keeping only four final versions.
Because the windmill and the moon were so far apart, while one appeared sharp the other would be a bit blurry. No amount of changing the depth of field on a long telephoto lens could overcome this difference. I ended up using two separate images for each final version – one with the windmill in focus and the other with the moon in focus. I blended the two together using Photoshop. I am pleased with the final versions, having captured and created something that our eyes can see but the camera cannot capture in one single image.
This blood moon image was taken at the peak of the eclipse. I used a windmill’s blades as the foreground – shot while basically on my back looking nearly straight up. I lightened up the foreground a bit so the blades of the windmill showed up a bit.
This photograph shows the rare Super Blood Wolf Moon as it turned a reddish-orange high in the Texas sky late in the night of January 20, 2019. With a windmill’s blades rising in the foreground, I used a telephoto lens to zoom in on both the windmill and the moon. This image is a composite of two photos, each taken to maximize clarity and sharpness. In the first image, the moon was the focal point. In the next image, the windmill was the focal point. Both were combined using Photoshop to show what the eye can see but the camera cannot capture, creating a sharp image of the windmill, maybe 50+ feet high, and the moon, about 223,000 miles away.
It was cold that night, and I am glad I did not plan on shooting the duration of the eclipse from partial to full to partial again. Here is how that full progression appeared back on April 15, 2014…
In the early morning hours of April 15, the earth passed between the sun and moon, causing a total luner eclipse and resulting in a ‘blood moon.’
This image was a composite of the moon phases over the course of several hours over Austin, Texas.
Maybe next time. After all, the next total lunar eclipse in my area is only a few years away – on May 26, 2021!
In the meantime, stay warm out there. Bluebonnets are on the way.
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.