I have been wanting to get out and take some night sky photos of the Milky Way this summer, but the weather and my personal schedule have not cooperated with me. So I watched the weather all week and made a plan for Friday night at Pedernales Falls State Park west of Austin.
Pedernales Falls State Park is close enough to Austin that I could drive out there after work and have a little time to scout around before the sun set at about 8:30. I reserved a primitive campsite so that I could be in the park late into the night with a parking permit on my vehicle. I parked, grabbed my camera gear, and hiked up the wolf mountain trail to hopefully find a nice overlook to the south for some Milky Way photos.
I did come across a scene on the trail, with the setting sun shining through some trees and illuminating the grass along the trail in front of me. I thought that the trail leading toward the setting sun with the grass in the foreground lit by golden light would make a nice photo.
I did put the camera in bracketing mode and clicked off five quick pictures to merge so I could avoid over-exposing the sky and still get the foreground.
I found a place to hang out for some sunset photos, but the sunset was unremarkable. This was good news though, as a nice sunset means high clouds and I didn’t want any clouds blocking the stars. Along the way I found a place that I wanted to set up for the night and I returned to this location to wait out the twilight.
Pedernales Falls State Park is not in one of the darkest areas of the state, but as I said it is close enough to Austin for an after work drive. The below image is a screen capture from darksitefinder.com. I placed a red star over the park to show its relation to the large cities of Austin and San Antonio. The park is not in the worst parts of the light pollution from the large cities, but it is going to get some light pollution on the horizon. Getting to the darker areas in west Texas requires driving several hours. It took me two hours in afternoon traffic just to get to Pedernales Falls State Park (there are no direct roads).
I decided to pack a folding chair along with me so that I’d have a comfortable place to sit and wait out the twilight. This was definitely worth the added weight to my pack. I also brought my Kindle and read a little. After sun down, it wasn’t cool but I did get a light breeze. It was very quiet out there aside from the occasional jet passing over and some coyotes in the distance waking up for the night. I saw Jupiter appear in the sky and watched as the stars slowly became visible. I also saw the occasional meteor and several satellites moving across the sky. Twilight ended at about 10:00 PM and I began taking photos.
For this outing I brought my camera (Nikon D750), a Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 lens, a tripod, and a spare battery. For camera settings, I started with f/1.8, 15s shutter time, and ISO1600, with long exposure noise reduction enabled. I experimented with different white balance settings, but in the end I just left it on auto. The orange light pollution was going to make a mess of any white balance and I figured that I’d be dealing with it in post anyway.
I was able to manually set focus in live view by zooming in on Jupiter (the brightest object in the sky) and adjusting the focus until the planet was a tiny point of light. I used a wireless remote shutter with a 2 second delay to minimize any camera shake that would blur the stars.
The sky was unfortunately kind of hazy even though there weren’t a lot of clouds. The haze obscured the stars and picked up the light pollution. I watched during the week as the forecast went from clear to partly cloudy, but I had hopes for some nice pictures. As you can see in the image above there were some clouds on the horizon picking up the light pollution. I could actually see the Milky Way with my own eyes; I certainly can’t see it in the city.
One thing that I wanted to work on was getting some sort of foreground in the shot. I experimented with an old tree stump that I thought might look good. I set up low behind the stump, trying to keep the trees out of the background, and kept focus on the stars.
To light the stump, I used my head lamp with my hand held over it. I moved my hand for just a second during the 20 second exposure to get a little light on the stump. This was probably too much light. Being this close to the stump with the focus set at infinity, the stump is a little blurry. If I was serious about this composition, I could have done some focus stacking and worked on the lighting, but I didn’t really think that the stump was working.
Another thing that you will notice in the above photos if you look closely, is the faint streak of satellites moving across the sky. This is most noticeable just after/before twilight while the satellites are still getting sunlight. This is only going to get more common in the future.
Another aspect of night sky photography that I am starting to enjoy is identifying stars and planets. I have an app called Star Walker on my computer that I use to identify major stars and constellations. Below is a screen capture of the simulated southern sky from Austin at the time I was shooting photos. You can see Jupiter, Saturn, and the constellation of Scorpius. The Sagittarius constellation is up there too, but it is much larger and difficult for me to make out.
Compare this to my photo below on which I have marked Jupiter, Saturn, and Scorpius:
Zooming in you can find lots of interesting things like the Ptolemy Star Cluster, the Laguna Nebula, and several other asterisms.
Overall I did 4 or 5 miles of hiking carrying my camera gear, which was nice because I need the exercise, but even late at night it is still quite warm out there (mid 80s F). It was a long walk back to the car in the middle of the night, but the trail is generally very wide and smooth and I had my headlamp to light the way.
There are darker areas of Texas that are better for night sky photography that I would like to get out to. For instance, Lost Maples State Natural Area where I went last July, you can really see the difference in light pollution looking at those pictures. I haven’t been able to find the time and clear weather to make this happen yet this year. I would really like to get out to Big Bend National Park for this Milky Way season, but haven’t been able to make it happen.
I hope you enjoyed my night sky photos. Thanks for reading and leave a comment below if you like.