Show and Tell – Railcar Milky Way

In Astrophotography, Learning Center, Show and Tell by jfischer1 Comment

When a good friend on Instagram messaged me about a group planning a trip to Galveston for an all-out blitz of a weekend with little sleep, little in the way of plans other than astrophotography and the beach, I wasn’t about to pass up the invite. What I didn’t plan on was hitting north Houston traffic at 5pm on a Friday afternoon. Needless to say, by the time I crossed over the bridge onto Galveston Island, I needed a beer more than I needed to shoot a marginally interesting sunset. A few hours later however, a couple of local photographers had guided us to a set of abandoned rail cars on the edge of town. And that’s where the adventure began.

Date June 22, 2018
Location Galveston, TX
Camera Canon EOS 5D MkIV
Lens Canon EF 16-35mm F/4L IS USM
ISO 200
Exposure 10.0 sec
Aperture f/18
Focal Length 31mm
Exposure Program Aperture priority
File Id _MG_4940

The Shot

First off, I’m not going to tell you exactly where this is at. It’s known that they are used by transient and homeless individuals, and it’s best not to go searching them out on your own, thus I’m not giving you a specific location. Sorry. Also, they’re not in the best of condition regardless of who may be around. I personally opted not to go into the cars and did all my photography from the outside.

During my first astrophotography workshop I took with Mike Mezeul, almost the first thing he said after the workshop commenced, was that the Milky Way should not be the subject of a night landscape image. That is, it shouldn’t be the focus point, but rather a supporting element. I have always tried to keep that in mind any time I search out a location to shoot after dark (and during the day too!). The subject of the shot is the rail car, it’s various graffiti, and rusty patina. I opted to shoot it with a vanishing point perspective off into the darkness, almost as if the train kept going into the unknown. As for the sky, one might guess with a location this close to a city as populated as Galveston, the night sky overhead was taken separately and composited in during editing. In this case, the sky frame was taken some weeks previously during another night time shoot under the open dark skies of Texas. I usually prefer to shoot all elements of a composite as close in location and time as I can to both ensure that I’m working on telling a story that is still grounded in the real to some degree.

Setting up for the shot, I first walked most of the way around the railcar, looking for the best perspective. Large lights in the area were bathing the entire scene in quite a bit of light, but this perspective ensured that I had the fewest problems keeping those lights out of the resulting image. It did make for some very even, and thankfully decent colored, light painting for us. The more ‘normal’ focal length of 31mm prevented any wide angle distortion of the perspective and lines of the train, something that just didn’t feel right for this location. As I did not want to have to focus stack the image, I opted for a slightly smaller aperture than I normally would shoot with, but ensured that the entire length of the rail car was in good sharp focus.


The edit on this photo was fairly straight forward. As you can see from the progression sequence below, the majority of the foreground editing was done in Lightroom, not a whole lot of changes were needed on the railcar or foreground grasses once it went into Photoshop. Most of the layers you see in the Photoshop stack in the screen shot above are all about cleaning up the foreground of some distracting elements, and of course compositing in the milky way sky. From bottom to top of the stack, is the background, cleaned up background, a burn dodge layer to darken the far left side, and then the Milky Way frame with its mask. The mask for this shot was done with the Quick Selection tool, since then I have started using the TK Panel and luminosity masks for a significant number of my edits when complex masks are needed. The remaining layers are all either tweaks to the sky to accentuate the Milky Way core, or to work on balancing the sky and foreground exposure or color. The final layer on top is a sharpening layer using a High Pass filter.

This is a fairly simple edit, at least as my edits typically go these days, as it was done shortly after getting back to the house the group was renting for the weekend on the island. I worked on this edit largely to show several members of the group a quick Milky Way composite edit as we had plans to do more Milky Way shooting later in the trip and I wanted to give them a few tips while we had the down time. The top of the railcar provided a largely smooth regular surface that made for an easy selection with the Quick Selection tool, there was enough contrast for Photoshop to easily identify the edge and follow it.

bottom to top: SOOC, LR Edit, final edit

If I were to take and or edit this shot again, I might consider getting a bit more pop out of the rail car with some additional clarity. Also the movement of the dry grasses in the foreground bother me some, wish I’d taken another frame with a shorter exposure time to get those to be still. At the time, I really wasn’t ‘feeling’ the location, probably because of the long drive from Dallas after a full day at work. So my mind wasn’t fully in gear to take all the separate elements to make this it’s best. Still, an image I’m happy with and shows of several different techniques and thought processes. I hope you enjoyed reading.


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