Sweat trickled into my eyes as I looked out at the Rio Grande. It was late summer in Big Bend Ranch State Park, and though the sun had just gone down, the temperature had not. Clouds that had been building in the northwest appeared to be heading my way. I’d traveled to this remote region of Texas, home to some of the darkest skies in the nation, to photograph the night. But my trip coincided with monsoon season, and I’d spent much of my time so far waiting out storms and watching as thick clouds obscured the stars.
Yet this evening, as darkness fell and bats whizzed around me, Venus and Jupiter shone bright. I planted my tripod in the dirt, peered at the screen of my Nikon D850, and composed a shot—a stretch of purple river, steep cliffs and mountain peaks, and a smoldering sky above. Surrounded by desert scrub—creosote and prickly pear, ocotillo and thorny acacia—I gazed up as more stars emerged and a cloudy swath took shape in the southwestern sky. This, I thought, was why I’d taken my chances during the monsoon and heat. The swath of light I was seeing wasn’t a cloud. It was the glimmering core of the Milky Way.
The sight filled me with reverence. Could any photograph really capture the awe-inspiring scene before me? I didn’t know but was determined to try.
Landscape astrophotography takes total commitment. You travel long distances to find the darkest skies, yet you’re always at the mercy of the weather. You’re often working around prickly cacti, slippery ice, or twisting roots, which can be perilous in darkness. Simple tasks during daytime—like focusing a lens or identifying objects in the middle ground of a shot—become aggravatingly difficult in the dark, especially when you’re sleep-deprived. Depending on the kind of image you’re after, you might spend hours in isolation, taking hundreds of photographs to create one great image. Of course, I knew this going in.