This past Autumn, I had an idea of photographing the Red Star Hoodoo of Palo Duro Canyon with a backdrop of stars. From where this lesser known structure sits just off the trail, it is relatively easy to downclimb into a valley and shoot upwards toward the hoodoo with the twinkling of a million stars overhead. I’d researched the night sky using Stellarium and found that Messier 31 (M31 - commonly known as Andromeda) would be rising behind Red Star a little after sunset in late September. I’d be passing by Palo Duro during this time of year on my way to photograph the fall colors in Colorado, so why not give it a try!
For my images with the night sky, I photograph the foreground a little after sunset but while there is still enough light to show definition in the rocks and/or trees. I follow up this initial image an hour or so later (when it is dark) by using a star-tracker to take long exposures of the stars. And in this location near Red Star Hoodoo, this set-up was pretty straight forward: I’d shoot the hoodoo, then ascend to a higher ridge to photograph the sky without any obstructions
After the 7-hour drive from my home in Drip, I found my camping site beneath Fortress Cliff in Palo Duro, then headed out on the GSL Trail to scout out the area. Red Star is only a mile up the easy trail, and further along is the Devil’s Tombstone – both nestled in the shadow of a cliff in this amazing landscape and worthy of a photograph or two at sunset. Then I’d focus on the nighttime session.
The sunset was better than expected, and I really liked a few of the final products (see the end of this blog for examples). As the light faded, I carefully skidded down into the valley across loose rock, cacti, and slippy sand to finally find a place where I could look up and have a clear view of Red Star.
For an image like this, I wanted to use a telephoto lens. This would allow me to photograph from a perspective that not only shows a close up of Red Star, but would also capture the stars and the Andromeda galaxy in the sky with a much narrower field of view. When both the foreground and sky are shot from a further distance away using a telephoto, the distant objects (stars, moon, etc) appear larger and more pronounced in relation to the foreground.
Using a 70-200mm L lens at 170mm, I photographed the Red Star foreground about 30 minutes after sunset. A little later, from a more prominent location with an open horizon (but still facing the same direction as Red Star) the more challenging work started. I set up my new Star Adventurer 2 (a device for tracking stars that allows long exposures and eliminates star trails) and began the first of several test shots at short exposures at 4000 ISO. For me, this process is not quick. Overall, I probably spent over an hour refining the star tracking, focus, and specific location of the sky I was shooting. I started with a wider-angled lens – the 24-105. After I narrowed down the area I wanted to focus on, I switched to the 70-200. Eventually, I zeroed in on finding Andromeda exactly where it would have appeared in relation to Red Star. I ended up taking a myriad of test shots to finally get it exactly as needed. The final image of this night sky exposure came in at 640 ISO, f/4.5, at 170mm over 57 seconds of exposure time.
Using photoshop, I blended the two images together to show the beauty of Red Star and the night sky looming overhead.
Some folks may say this isn’t true photography. That’s fine. I want to show what the view would be if you find yourself in Palo Duro at night. Our cameras cannot capture this scene in one single image, so this is the next bext thing. And I want to show and share the beauty of the deep sky with the canyon landscape beneath. And some folks may nay-say, but this final product was taken with two photographs - exactly how we’d see them that late September night.
Last, here are a few photos from earlier that evening as the sky put on a brief show before evening settled in.
Thanks for looking, and happy travels, Texas!