The Stars at Night are in a Ghost Town in Southwest Texas
As far as the middle of nowhere goes, Terlingua Texas is about as close as you can get.
Terlingua is a former mercury mining town about 8 hours southwest of Austin, and just outside of Big Bend National Park. It is an interesting mix of ruins, campsites, a bar or two and single gas station.
The eight-hour drive from Austin reminds you again and again of how remote Big Bend is as you cross several hundred miles of open desert with very little to break up the monotony or prevent you from falling asleep behind the wheel. This presented a perfect excuse to catch up on an audiobook (Understanding Japan - A Cultural History) I had been unable to listen to due to work obligations, and to consume an unreasonable number of energy drinks to remain alert to the road.
After a full day of listening to the drone of the truck and learning an immense amount about the role of the Samurai in Japanese history, I arrived at my destination just outside of Terlingua. I met Jason at our Airbnb, and the first order of business was to convince the local scorpions to find somewhere to hang out, that wasn't where we were going to sleep for the next few days.
The Terlingua Ghost Town Cemetery is a fascinating (and creepy) place. It has been around for a century or more, and even though it is in the ghost town, it is still active today. Filled with everything from recent local residents to children who died during the flu epidemic and gunfighters from a hundred years ago, the cemetery is saturated in the history of this town.
We set up on the edge of the cemetery for an evening shoot, and were hoping for a little lighting, which never made it our way. After enjoying the sunset I wandered through and just spent some time looking at the incredible diversity of people that had lived in Terlingua over the last 150 years. Although our history as a nation is short in comparison to the old world, it is certainly colorful and fascinating.
After getting some food at really the only place you can, we set up outside the ruins to start working on getting some good astro shots. It was during this process that I learned a great deal about how to light a near foreground in these shots in a way that makes them more interesting.
I had always thought there was some overly complicated way with really expensive equipment that enabled photographers to light a foreground during nighttime photos that resulted in the images I had seen. Turns out the equipment you need is really expensive, but you most likely have it near you right now.
It's your cell phone.
In the below image taken at the Terlingua ruins, I ran the typical settings on my camera to capture the image, but while the shutter was open, I "painted" the foreground using the lock screen on my phone with the brightness turned way down. That was it. That was all that it took to give me a bright and well defined foreground without wreaking havoc on the background of the image. This only works well if the foreground is within a few meters, but it's much easier than some of the other ways to do it, and requires almost no investment in equipment or a steep learning curve.
After a good night of shooting, we went back, were overly paranoid about scorpions, had a beer, and passed out to the sounds of the desert.
After messing with post processing a good chunk of the next day and generally not doing anything that amounts to anything productive, we set out for our second location. We ended up heading down FM 170 to the west of town and ended up stopping at a wash that still had running water due to recent rain. It was pitch black, and with a great ridgeline, we pulled over to try our luck.
It was during this shoot that I learned how big of a difference there is between f/2.8 and f/1.8. The picture to the right was shot at f/1.8 for half the time the above picture was shot at f/2.8. What I absolutely love about this image is all of the additional color that the camera's sensor manages to capture. Once I got through processing it, the density of stars and the colors seemed almost unreal. I would highly recommend ensuring that you not only have a good wide angle lens with you - but a prime lens that can shoot wide open at f/1.8 or f/1.4. It will give you a lot of versatility and help you take a very different kind of astro photo. After a really late night, we once again headed back to the cabin and called it a day.
On our final day there, we managed to get out to the abandoned RV just to the southeast of Terlingua along TX Highway 118. I have no clue what the backstory is, but this RV just sits in the middle of a field and has for quite some time. It makes for an interesting foreground against an immense night sky, and a great opportunity to work with speedlights to add some detail and light to the foreground.
In the image below, I used some pretty standard settings and set my speedlight to 1/64th of a second to illuminate the RV and other parts of the foreground - but not too much. It adds just enough to enable you to see the foreground, but keep that middle of nowhere feeling. There are all kinds of options when it comes to speedlights - for me, I love and use the Nikon SB-900.
Overall it was an amazing opportunity. I got to know Jason a lot better, helped some students learn the basics of astro, and spent multiple nights out under the stars (with plenty of bugs for company). Spending a week in Terlingua working hard to get better, with no cell signal, and focusing on the sky above you at night can do wonders for your mental health.
In closing, I believe it is worth saying that we as humans have a fundamental connection to the night sky. It has fueled curiosity and imagination among people for millennia the world over. As we become more connected, and many of us continue to migrate into cities and other highly populated areas, it is absolutely critical that we preserve and maintain our dark sky areas so that our children and the generations that follow them will always be able to look up at the night sky in wonder and amazement at our place in our little corner of the universe.
The International Dark Sky Association is an amazing group dedicated to preserving our night skies for generations to come (https://www.darksky.org/). I would encourage anyone interested to check out what they are doing and join in the cause. Both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park have recently become Dark Sky Preserves.