Central Texas Day-Tripping: Star-Trails

Ever wonder how they take those cool pictures of star trails? You know, the ones where all the stars are swirling around a central point in a dark sky. Having those questions myself I scraped the web and found that I not only had all the equipment necessary but also a VRBO cabin reserved in very dark sky country outside Llano Texas. If you haven’t realized by now, both Kris and I love our remote cabins. Kris works in a very fast-paced hospital and needs to get away and decompress as often as is reasonable. I was in a high-stress environment as a dental assistant (at the time) and, in general, have always enjoyed travel and photography so this would be the perfect opportunity to test out what I thought I had learned.

Rolling onto the ranch outside of Llano, leaving a bright red clay dust cloud in my wake we arrived at our weekend accommodation. After reviewing the site online and being here in person I found the area well suited for this astrophotography session. We had booked a cabin that had zero native light pollution and fortunately there were no other bookings in the neighboring cabins this weekend so we had the place to ourselves.

With the van unpacked of everything but my equipment I set out to find the best place to setup the camera for the star trail images I hoped to gather tonight. I had hoped I would be able to capture the images from the rear of the cabin however there were many red ant hills and the last thing I wanted was to deal with that all night. After some time and wandering around there property like I had early onset dementia, I found an area along the north side of the cabin that would give me an awesome angle where I would capture a very rustic windmill, some old oak trees and Polaris (North Star).

At this point I began to lay out the site and prepare my gear. I attached the trusty Canon Rebel t6 with battery grip to the tripod, attached the shutter release cable and that ultra wide angle Manual Rokinon Lens that I had previously used for Milky Way Photography a month or so ago.  I opened up the star finder app on my phone and found a pretty precise area where Polaris should be and then maneuvered my tripod setup to capture the oaks and the windmill. With the composition created I ran through settings that I scraped off the net and plugged them in. At this point, Kris and I spent the rest of the afternoon on the ranch petting the donkeys, bird watching and imbibing adult beverages. Below are my settings for the DSLR/Lens combo. Bear in mind there are many ways to capture these images, a lot of people stack in a photo program and still others do multiple images and time lapse. My goal was to shoot continuously for a couple hours and see what I got.

  • Widest Aperture Available on your lens
  • ISO 200
  • Shutter Speed: Manual/Bulb (I used the cable and ran it for two hrs straight)

Slightly tipsy and watching the sunset from the ranch was surreal. I was absolutely blown away at the sunset. I was able to capture a couple of images with my iPhone 6. I have to say that is a pretty impressive little camera on that phone. I was able to get some pretty cool effects by merely tapping the image while focusing. Anyway, here is an image of that sunset. I suppose it helps that we were in a beautiful environment so composition pretty much took care of itself.

iPhone 6 sunset, absolutely gorgeous

As far as the Star Trails, we shot for about three hours (including testing) and had clear skies with the exception of some high cirrus clouds at the tail end of the shoot. For my first time shooting star trails I was happy with the image. In the future I will be more serious about the composition cause that could have been greatly improved. I’d also shoot an hour long exposure and see what I got. I feel like I was too hung up on a longer exposure to get longer trails. Seeing how dense the sky was with stars at this dark site it probably wasn’t necessary. We are hoping to head out to Big Bend State Park this winter for more star trails.

Final processed unedited star trail image from our time in Llano. Notice the smudgy streak in the center from the cirrus clouds.
Kris with the ranch donkeys
Cardinal bathing in the AM

Published by DW

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

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