Despite being a bit daunted by the long drive it was from my home base of Dallas / Fort Worth to reach Fort Davis and it’s neighboring city of Marfa, Texas I had been incredibly excited for my trip to McDonald Observatory, and that part of the country for the rare opportunity to be in true Dark Sky area to try my hand at Astrophotography.
If you’re trying to see the stars whether it’s with your own eyes, a telescope or a camera lens, you’ll have the best visibility in areas that are classified as Dark Sky. We just don’t see the stars anymore except the most brightest (like Polaris) from our cities, because we have too much light pollution surrounding us. The light from our urban environment washes out the most distant light from the heavenly bodies around us. Think of it like how your night vision is ruined when you have lights turned on around you.
So much work goes into the preparation for Astrophotography. First it was time to do some research. Thanks to Wikipedia’s entries having elevation information and GPS coordinates of Latitude and Longitude I then plugged that information into the Stellarium APP on the days of my visit to see when and where the Milkyway would be rising and visible. Luckily for me it was going to be visible at that time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere (May through August), and I found the hours where I’d have the best opportunity to shoot the Milky Way each night. Once I had the basic information and reference points in the sky I was able to combine that information with my free Sky Maps APP (which shows the night sky), so I could orient myself with nearby celestial objects the day/night of to get my camera pointing the right way.
If you’ve ever seen the meme:
This is because cameras have in some ways not yet neared the complexity of what our eyes can do. Vision with our eyes and with a camera works under the same base principle in that it requires light to see. Our eyes make complex changes rapidly, a camera lens has to be set up just so. The darker it is the wider the aperture needs to be opened and the longer the shutter speed should be kept open as well to allow the most light to come in. This requires more sophisticated camera equipment that allows you to manually manipulate those settings, and also requires a tripod (otherwise there’s too much camera shake and the images will be blurry). Ideally you also want a lens that can infinity focus as well, and you need to be able to turn off auto-focus and image stabilization.
Because our galaxy, our solar system, and our planet are in constant motion if you leave the shutter speed open too long you begin to get star trails [example follows].
Now I wanted to focus this trip on Milky Way Photography so Star Trails were NOT the desired result. There’s actually a mathematical formula used to calculate how long you can leave a shutter speed open based on the capability of your specific camera before you start experiencing the streaking of a Star Trail (it’s very long exposures that show rotational trails like above). So finding that number in seconds (a little over 17 seconds) I then adjusted my settings to JUST under that so I could maximize the light I took in. Additionally I had to use the Photographer’s Ephemeris to find out when Moon Rise was so I could avoid it. Why? The Moon is detrimental to Milky Way shots because the stronger light of the Moon causes it’s own light pollution drowning out the fainter Milky Way.
Luckily everything was lining up beautifully for my shots from an astronomy stand point. And then, Mother Nature decided to rain on my parade. 3 Nights of potential shooting, and I only got about an hour here and there of sporadic breaks in the cloud coverage across those 3 nights (usually the breaks were NOT conducive to MilkyWay shots at all) where I had a chance to shoot something, and even then there were still wispy hazy clouds that prevented me from getting clear shots, or other people ruining my shots. This is sadly the best shot I got.
As frustrating as my trip was, the experience I took away from the attempt will pay dividends in the future. Thanks to my cousin’s invitation I was at least able to listen to some amazing talks at the annual McDonald Observatory’s Board of Visitors Meeting, by scientists and researchers like Dr. Fritz Benedict’s “The Joy of M Dwarf Binaries and How One in the Hyades Gives Me a Headache” and Dr. Rob Robinson’s “Astronomy Questions that Remain Unanswered.”
This is my best Stardust shot from my trip: