Our family went on a great camping trip in Central Texas this past weekend. I woke up at about 5 am on Saturday morning and stepped outside to amazing skies. I thought to try my hand at some night sky photography but had no idea where my camera, tripod, and wide-angle lens were at the moment. Of course I was not about to shine a light and go looking for things, especially with our 4-month old soundly asleep. So, Saturday night I set the appropriate gear out in case I woke up early Sunday morning. I *did* wake up early and spent a bit of time trying to get some good images of the stars. I experimented with aperture, shutter speed, and ISO and found some reasonable combinations. Only later did I hear of the “600 rule” which says that for these night shots you should set your max shutter duration to 600 divided by your focal length if you want to avoid obvious star trails. My results roughly correlate with that. A quick internet search yields all sorts of information about night sky photography and post-processing by stacking images…I’ll leave it to you readers to do that research if you’re interested. I may dig deeper someday myself.
I tried a bit of light painting in an attempt to barely show the trees and add interest to the photo but all I had was a Streamlight brand flashlight (an amazingly bright little pocket flashlight which I highly recommend). I first of all didn’t want to disturb any campers and then even when I could shine the light away from other campers it was simply too bright to have reasonable control over the exposure.
I believe the glow on the horizon is from San Antonio. The city is quite far but a long exposure will pick that up quite a bit. The camera is definitely pointing toward the city.
In the image above you can see a faint shooting star to the lower left of the milky way clouds (kind of tough to see at this size). In the shot below I captured a more obvious shooting star but the overall image is kind of boring. I did minimal processing on these — noise reduction, slight contrast adjustments.
Last summer I took my 6 year old son camping for the weekend at Padre Island National Seashore (PINS…see this post, and this post). I didn’t do a lot of photography but managed a few shots to document the weekend.
The night shot that I recently posted from Big Bend National Park brought to mind some of the pictures I took at night at PINS. The shot above had some really cool clouds and it looked to me like an angel with its wings spread across the ocean (kind of sappy I know). The surf is always pounding down there but I like how the long exposure gives the Gulf a smooth look.
I can’t explain why, but the view of the stars from the beach is every bit as clear and amazing as the view in the middle of west Texas (which has some of the darkest skies in the US). Depending where you are on the beach you may be as close as 15 miles from Corpus Christi — a decently-sized metro area of about 430,000 people according to wikipedia. There’s a lot of glow from the city but on a cloudless night the Milky Way is as clear as ever (looks like clouds in the sky). Obviously this picture was taken with a bright moon which kills much of the view of the stars so there were no Milky Way pictures that night.
My goal was to make this image rather dramatic given the cloud formation and the processing steps to get there were rather simple. In Lightroom I removed a couple of stars within the angel shape with the spot removal tool. They detracted from the aesthetics of the overall image because they were too bright. [My opinion is that one is free to do this kind of thing as long as they don’t dishonestly portray the final result as 100% accurate]. Then in Photoshop I used the channel mixer to tone the image to a blue-ish monochrome — I didn’t want a straight black and white image. [David Nightingale’s tutorials have inspired a lot of experimentation with things like the channel mixer and with “dramatic” images in general]. I used a vibrance adjustment to back off on the blue a bit (couldn’t quite figure out the channel mixer settings to get the color just how I wanted it). I added one general s-curve and then another curve masked in to provide a touch of vignette. Some noise reduction and sharpening for the stars topped that off the Photoshop work. Once I was back in Lightroom I tweaked the color a tiny bit more because I wasn’t quite satisfied upon a second look.
I spent an enjoyable weekend with my oldest son in Big Bend National Park. It was hotter than blazes in the desert (110 in the shade the first day) but this was our only available weekend for many months. Frankly the heat wasn’t a big problem.
On past trips we’ve backpacked into the high Chisos Mountains but so far this summer all the mountain backcountry sites are closed due to extreme fire danger. So, we camped out in the Chisos Basin campground — enjoyed it very much actually. It was nice not having to lug a 50# pack full of water up into the mountains.
Before heading to bed one night I experimented with long exposures of the skies. I never did seem to find the “right” settings but got some fun shots nonetheless. The above shot of the mountain known as Casa Grande gives a sense of what the sky was like. That night there were clouds moving across the sky which annoyed me at first but they do add another dimension to the shot. This photo needs a frame to make it stand out from the page background…maybe later.
I always liked the stars that adorn the gates and fences on the Texas Capitol grounds. I played with variations of this shot for a while but couldn’t seem to capture what I really had in mind — both the star and the Capitol in focus, with this perspective. The formula may exist but I didn’t figure it out. The wide-angle lens (used for this shot) gave a perfect perspective but I had to use a focus distance which precluded a deep depth-of-field. Stepping back with the wide lens pulled in some out-of-balance elements (IMO) of the gate unless I centered the star (blocking the Capitol building). Tried the 24-70mm but the bit of added compression in perspective wasn’t quite to my liking. That compression does help square up the star and Capitol relative to each other but again, it wasn’t what I was after.
I decided to post the shot anyway — still an interesting shot IMO and I hope you enjoy it. It’s interesting how the tonemapping process turns the background blur into a somewhat dreamy scene while keeping the star a nice, realistic focus point. I might experiment with this shot again someday.