Pic of the Week 5/5/17
“Milky Way in Moonlight”
Location: Highway 256 near Caprock Canyon
Date Taken: 5/2/17
Guys it’s here! The milky way season is finally here! This past Tuesday I was able to capture my first milky way photo of the year. What made this milky way photo so different was I had no intention of shooting some night time photography that day. You see, I was instead looking for a nice storm chase after work.
Earlier that morning some of the weather models were hinting at the possibility of storms going up along a pseudo triple point that was setting up along the Red River. My target was Childress, TX, but depending on where the front ended up we may drift into Oklahoma. I asked my friend Ryan Litton to join me on this chase. Ryan, is starting out in photography and storm chasing and what better teacher than experience. Sadly, though we’re experiencing everything and that includes chase busts. The SPC issued a mesoscale discussion in the early evening. This is an area the SPC highlights for the potential of severe weather and is the step before they issue a watch. I had some reservations about our target, however. I was concerned the front would drift too far north and we wouldn’t be able to catch the storms before sunset. There was also the possibility that the cap could hold preventing thunderstorm development. This is exactly what happened and we drove to our target. We saw some towers attempt to develop into storms, but they just couldn’t beat the cap. While in Childress we decided to grab some dinner, and decide if we wanted to call it a chase.
I said that if we didn’t get storms, maybe we would get a good sunset, but that too did not happen. It wasn’t looking good for us so I suggested we drive another 1.5hrs to Caprock Canyon and shoot the night sky. Ryan agreed with me knowing it was going to be a long night. When we reached Esteline, TX we came to the Highway 86 junction which takes us to Caprock Canyons State Park. The sun was now below the horizon and we could start to see some stars in the sky. Turning onto 86 you immediately notice the difference in the amount of traffic on this lonely road. There are no street lights like you will sometimes see on 287 and the area is abundant with wildlife. In fact, not five miles into 86 we saw a coyote cross the highway just in front of us. This is where the Texas wilderness reigns.
Following 86 we eventually reached Turkey, TX and continued down 86 towards Quitiquae. This is the entrance to Caprock Canyon State Park, but we were not actually going to the park. One reason is the park closes around 10pm to all outside visitors, so instead we turned on state road 256. This road heads east towards the north prong of Caprock Canyon. I have been down this road before and I remembered a rest stop that overlooked the canyon to the north. We arrived at the rest stop around 11pm and I quickly got out and scouted the area for locations. The waxing gibbous moon was interrupted by intermittent cloud cover and threw some excellent soft light on the landscape. This would be a good opportunity for a timelapse. We watched as the clouds covered up the shimmering stars and casted shadows on the rugged canyon. It was quite peaceful as we were the only ones out there.
I knew the milky way would be coming up around 1am and that I wanted to photograph the milky way looking down into the canyon. We continued heading east on 256 descending in elevation. We came to a pull off with a fantastic view of the canyon across the road. One of the best things about this location was the lack of trees at the top ledge. This gave us an excellent unobstructed view of the canyon and made finding a pleasing composition even easier. After scouting around, I found the composition I wanted and set up for the shoot. My camera was positioned so I had 2/3 of the starry sky and 1/3 of the canyon. I also used the natural leading lines of the canyon to draw the eye to a small peak of the canyon wall in the distance. This work great to lead the eye through the canyon, to that peak, and above where the galactic center of the milky way is gently resting in the sky. I shot a timelapse sequence of the milky way rising here that I am so excited about.
Somewhere around 1:30am the wind started to pick up—and not just a small gust. Winds were sustaining about 30mph and gusting as high was 45-50mph. During this time we climbed back into the vehicle and watched my camera and the milky way from the shelter of my car. I decided to call it a night around 2:30am. I had work the next morning and Ryan had class as well. We drove back to Wichita Falls and made it back to my apartment just before 5:30am. It was a long journey with an unplanned nighttime photo shoot, but it was well worth it. Shooting Caprock Canyon lit by moonlight below the milky way is not a bad first night photo of the year. I have many more milky trips planned for later in the year and I hope I stumble across more impromptu milky way shoots during the season.