Central Texas Day-Tripping: Milky Way Photography

This last summer both Kris and I visited a small VRBO cabin outside of Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country for some Milky Way photography as well as R&R. We have all seen the images online captured on DSLR cameras and teased in various photoshop programs. While all those images are amazing and inspiring in their own way, I wanted to see what they look like in raw format, unedited with real-time effects (light-painting, etc). Don’t get me wrong, I love the clarity and depth of photoshopped/stacked images but they sometimes ring hollow and give the viewer a false sense of “what the eye sees” in the field.

Having said all that, I’d like to share the background and composition of the evening. Kris and I arrived at the cabin late in the afternoon on a particularly hot and steamy mid-June day. If you have experienced summer in Texas then you understand where I am going. Fortunately, there was a steady light breeze and plenty of cold adult beverages on-hand. After unloading the van and getting all my gear into place both Kris and I sat on the front porch of the cabin and enjoyed the stunning hill country view and local wildlife. Without going into too much detail on the cabin and surrounding countryside (a tale for another article), both Kris and I saw countless deer grazing in the meadow, a curious cow who had wandered in from the neighboring ranch (or so we were told) and even a roadrunner. 

After getting slightly sauced on that warm afternoon the sun was setting and it was time to handle delicate equipment carefully. Thankfully the camera was safely secured to the tripod with a battery grip and shutter release cable in place. Additionally, I had attached a Manual Rokinon F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens earlier so that I wouldn’t be fumbling around in my inebriated state with new glass. I had been slowly building up my lens collection and was excited to have this one in the field with me tonight. This evening I had also unloaded my Dobsonian “Light Bucket” 10” telescope to do some deep-sky viewing and see what I could uncover. In the future, I plan on doing some deep-sky astrophotography however this is certainly not the telescope to do it with due to the lack of tracking and cumbersome nature of the scope in general.

As the sun began to sink behind the ridge I consulted my sky finder app and made some slight adjustments to positioning and moved my red LED flashlight closer so I would be able to see without ruining my night-vision and even do some light-painting. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this part of central TX, it gets dark out here… extremely dark. So dark in fact that at times I have tripped over equipment and damaged some items thus having to replace them with new wide-angle lens’… Anyway, the red LED will preserve your night vision and also function as a regular flashlight enabling you not to destroy hundreds of dollars worth of equipment in the dark. Additionally, the red (or other LED) can be used for “light painting”. 

Light painting is a very simple concept and quite easy to do successfully. You set up your shutter release on the DSLR for exposure between 5 to infinity and while you are capturing the image you simply turn on the light and wave it at your foreground illuminating it for a brief period (I do like 1-2 seconds). Depending on how long your exposure is and how long you “paint” the foreground your level of intensity will differ. Below is an example of the same image with and without light painting

As I mentioned earlier when I reviewed what equipment I brought to the site, it is a must to have a sturdy tripod, battery pack and cabled shutter release button. The reason it is important is that any vibration caused by a heavy breeze, pushing the shutter release button or stumbling through the site in a drunken haze will distort your image horribly. Additionally, for the most impressive images, you will want a very wide-angle lens. The milky way is huge and takes up a significant portion of the night sky and you will want to capture as much of it as possible. I will say I am by no means an expert. I read a few online guides and Amazon reviews and learned what I would need and what settings to use. I was able to capture some pretty impressive images (to me). I’ll go on and list my settings below.

  • Camera: Canon Rebel T6 DSLR
  • Lens: Manual Rokinon 14, F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens
  • ISO: 1600
  • Focal Length: 14mm stopped down to 2.8 set at infinity
  • Shutter: 20 seconds for some images, 30 for others (just depends on the level of “blur”)
  • White Balance: Auto

Granted, before you even snap the first image you will want to dial in your focus on the most distant object you can find at infinity which will get you in the ballpark when the lights go out, then just micro-adjust from there. I am a creature of habit and convenience so I mark my lengths on the dial of the lens with a sharpie so it is easy to go from daytime landscape photography to astrophotography on a manual lens. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer autofocus, however, a comparable lens was a magnitude of order more expensive so…

Anyway, I shot for about 3 hours and got some nice RAW images. I do not use a star tracker or equatorial device so I will not be stacking images in photoshop. These images will give you a good idea of what you can see with the naked eye. The last image is one with simple edits in iPhoto. 

Edited Milky Way Image (filters only)

Kris and I had a wonderful evening and enjoyed our R&R in the Texas hill country and have many other stories as it relates to that. We also would return about a month later to do some all-night star trail imaging (more on that later).

Published by DW

Freelance writer, photographer and traveler who enjoys sharing his experiences with others.

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