Night Lights

I just returned from a three day road trip in the RV with my longtime friend, Mike. We go back over 40 years now (yes, that was hard to type out). Photography is among several interests we have shared for a long time. So we try to get together at least once a year to do something camera related.

We were most interested in doing some night photography of the Milky Way in some of the darkest skies in N. America…the mountains in Ft. Davis, TX where the McDonald Observatory is located. I had been there on several occasions previously and knew it was the place to go. After picking Mike up late Thursday night, we made our way down to visit Marfa, TX which we had both heard of in the past.  Not sure what the big deal is on that place…overrated in our opinion but we did make a stop there before heading up top for some night skies.

My main objective for writing this blog post is to illustrate the nature of ‘light pollution’ which I find most interesting.  And if you have ever shot pictures of the night skies…or would like to learn how, you will most likely find this interesting as well.  I read an article just this morning that claims that 80% of Americans have never seen the Milky Way with their own eyes.  These two pics may explain why; found on the web site DarkSiteFinder.Com, it highlights where ‘light pollution’ is most prevalent:

I circled in red, the location of the Davis Mountains and the observatory where we planned on shooting from.
The maps show you where the highest concentration of light ‘pollution’ is most evident.  Light pollution being the term used to explain why it’s hard for most people who live in various sized cities to actually see the incredible view at night.   All that artificial light reflects off the atmosphere and makes seeing the stars most difficult.  Having been to this location in SW Texas before, I knew Mike and I both…would be in for a treat.

Because this was the only weekend he was available, I knew the moon would figure in to the quality of pictures we would be able to capture. There is a great app that I use called PhotoPills. It enables you to see exactly when and where the moon will be at any given time on any given day.  Same for tracking the visibility of the Milky way which is best seen in N. America during the summer months.  So the one night we were going to be atop the mountain, I knew the Milky Way band would be rising above the horizon close to midnight and a moon that would be nearly 80% visible would be right on its heels rising within the hour.  Important to note here that the moon itself provides it’s own challenge with ‘undesirable light’ if you want to photograph stars or even watch for meteors.  So if you ever get a chance to plan a trip out in a remote area to take such pictures, do so on a night where there is no moon.  Also…we were down there in the first week of May.  If you wait till later in the summer like July/August, the Milky Way band of stars is higher in the sky at a more reasonable hour.  Once the sun sets, within an hour you will be treated to a view in those months that most Americans rarely have seen.

So once we arrived to our lookout location, we waited.  And maybe played just a bit with our cameras waiting for the sun to set.

It was not long before the stars began appearing and creating the canopy above..as far as the eye could see…north…south…east…and west.  You really have to witness for yourselves to truly understand and appreciate it.

As mentioned earlier, while there is no shortage of stars to see and wonder over, the ‘main event’ is the Milky Way itself.  Here is a shot I took about an hour after sunset.  That is Venus that is showing off’ some light. You can make out the faint glow of the sun below.

This next photo was taken around 10PM well after the sun set but still two hours before the thick band would appear in the east. The really bright ‘star’ seen here is actually Jupiter.

And then on cue, the Milky Way Band began to creep upwards over the horizon and a band of clouds that was moving eastward.
You can make out the band of concentrated stars rising in the sky here.  That is still Jupiter higher up.  For those who are curious about such things, I was using a 14mm wide angle lens.  My camera settings were ISO 2000, f-2.8 and mounted on a tripod focused on infinity, I had a 20 second exposure to capture this and the next shot below here. Yes…this is the moon making its ascent which quickly begins to affect the visibility of the stars.

And just for a frame of reference so you can compare how moonlight figures in to seeing/capturing the Milky Way, here is a photo I took several summers ago from the same location with similar camera settings. There was no moon that night and the orange glow is from a small town about 40 miles away.

Now for one more capture of the Milky Way that I found interesting.  Later that morning (Saturday) we headed north to Palo Duro Canyon, located southeast of Amarillo in the panhandle.  We set up camp and knew we would have a great view of the stars as we looked out over the expanse of the second largest canyon in the country.  The Milky Way was slated to appear around 11:30 that night and the moon would not be rising until 2 the next morning.  We knew the city of Amarillo would have light issues, but it was behind us.  To the naked eye, it appeared our view would be spectacular.  And while it was a nice view with no moon to worry about this time…this photo below shows the MilkyWay around 1:00am in the morning.  It is nothing like the last shot I posted directly above taken several years ago in Ft Davis.  So the light pollution from Amarillo….while behind us…was still a factor in being able to see the beautiful sight in the sky. One last note to keep in mind here…when I photograph the Milky Way, the image captured by my camera sensor is actually more vibrant and spectacular than what the naked eye can actually see.  If you go to Ft Davis, you won’t be disappointed in what you witness…even if you bring no camera with you.  But Saturday night…even though our cameras captured this view…it was barely visible atop the canyon there to our eyes.  That…being attributed to the lights from Amarillo and most likely a certain amount of dust in the atmosphere.

All in all….it was a fantastic outing with my friend Mike and the RV and our cameras.  We continue learning how to improve our photo skills and are truly blessed to enjoy the beauty of creation that God has magnificently laid out for us.
Last two shots here…one of the RV at our spot when the moon was filtering through the tree and another of the moonlit tops of one of the observatories there.