If you want to see the core of the Milky Way, you have to view it at the right time of year. As the Earth orbits the sun, the galactic core rises and sets at different times throughout the year. In the Northern Hemisphere this means that in the dead of winter the galactic core rises and sets between morning twilight and evening twilight and is not visible because it is up during the day. But in spring, the core begins rising just before predawn twilight and you will have a chance to view it on a clear and moonless night. As spring turns into summer, the core rises progressively earlier until you have most of the night to view it. And by the end of November it is setting early in the evening and becomes invisible again. Your available time for viewing is also affected by the shorter nights in summer and lengthening nights as autumn progresses.
You also need a place with very little light pollution and a moonless night sky. Lost Maples State Natural Area in Texas has very dark skies on a moonless night as it doesn’t suffer from a lot of light pollution from nearby cities. This makes it a very good place to view the night sky. But its remoteness also makes it a long drive to get to.
Midday Saturday, it was a clear day and I got the sudden urge to shoot the night sky. I checked the moonset time and found that it would set at about 9:30PM, which is perfect as it is difficult to see the Milky Way with the bright moon in the sky. I checked when the galactic core would be visible and found that it would rise a few hours before astronomical twilight begins in the morning, which is acceptable to me. I then began checking a couple of State Parks that had reasonably dark skies to see if they had any available camping. Colorado Bend State Park was full, as it usually is on the weekends. But Lost Maples had some available drive-up camp sites so I reserved one and developed a quick plan.
I spent a little time looking at a satellite map and found an area that would be an easy hike in the predawn darkness. I quickly packed my car and hit the road. When I got there I would have at least 3 hours of daylight to scout my location, do a little hiking, and set up my tent.
My planned location to scout was just up the Maple Trail and less than half a mile from the trailhead parking lot. The trail runs along a creek bed with good visibility to the south, which is where the galactic core is generally seen. There was an open grassy area that offered a good view of the sky, but I ended up settling on some larger boulders along the creek bed. I selected a rough compositional idea and used the PhotoPills app AR to determine where the galactic core would be the following morning at around 5:30AM. Astronomical twilight begins at 5:58AM, so I should have at least an hour to get some photos if I get down there by 5:00AM.
So with that all planned out, I finished my hiking and got my camp set up for the evening. I left the outer cover off the top of my tent so I could look up through the netting and see the stars. It is always amazing when I see the night sky from a place like this as I live in the city and kind of get used to only seeing the few brightest stars against the light pollution. It really defies literal explanation or even photography and you have to see it for yourself.
I was awake by 4:30AM and I could already see the Milky Way from the door of my tent. I headed for the trailhead and got to my location with plenty of time to take in the stars. There was the galactic core right where it was supposed to be.
You can see just how dark it was by looking at the landscape in the photo. It is almost completely black except for the boulder which I shined a little light on so it would show up in the photo. There were a few clouds on the horizon when I got there, but they were nice enough to blow away quickly.
I had wanted some sort of landscape foreground for my night sky photos this time and I thought that boulder and stream bed would be nice, but I found that it didn’t work as well as I thought it would with the rest of the canyon being so dark. So, I moved more toward the center of the path and tried some other angles. Using my head lamp filtered by my shirt I composed a view looking across the creek and back down the trail toward the Milky Way. I think that worked better.
In post-processing I brushed a mask over the Milky Way and increased the contrast and exposure and then applied some dehaze and/or clarity to exaggerate it a bit. I also brought up the landscape so you could see the trail and reduced saturation. With that, working on the trees, and other adjustments, I probably have an hour and half of time in processing that image. I hope you don’t think I overdid it. If you would like to see the RAW image before I applied any edits to it, I have posted it below.
Another thing that you might notice is that it is difficult to take a night sky photo without a satellite streak, especially close to sunset or sunrise when the satellites are catching sun. So, just about every one of my photos has a streak or two. Thanks Starlink. I guess I can come back in a couple of months and do all this at 1:00AM and try avoid this if I want to.
And lastly here is a selfie. I am a bit blurry as it is a 20 second exposure and I didn’t remain perfectly still standing on the muddy rocks. My headlamp was wrapped in a shirt on the ground next to the tripod. I was attempting to be gazing ponderously at the heavens.
The sky in these photographs is processed to bring out detail. To my eyes, it is fainter and paler and I don’t discern the color that the camera does. But I also didn’t give my eyes enough time to adjust to the dark as I kept checking the camera screen. To get the best view, you would suppress the urge to constantly check your phone and let your eyes adjust to the dark conditions for at least 15 minutes. When I have sat and let my eyes adjust, I find that I can see a lot more of the detail as seen in the photos.
It is sad that we live without the full beauty of the night sky in our lives in these days of electric lights. A century or so ago, when it was still expensive to have light at night, this is what you saw when you looked up at night sky. I blame the electrical engineers. Thanks for reading.