Just north of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park is a small range of rocky hills known as the Grapevine Hills. They are an igneous intrusion into the sedimentary landscape. Here the rocks are dramatic shapes and are a very interesting area to both hike and photograph.
The most famous of the rocks is the Balanced Rock that seems an improbable balancing act. A one mile trail leads to the Balanced Rock and it is a popular destination with hikers and photographers.
Sunrise at Balanced Rock is a common goal for photographers and I have made the trek a few times myself. It usually means an early start from Cottonwood Campground to get there before the sunrise, but is one I like to do.
The photography there is usually defined by framing the distant Nugent Peak in the rock window and there is only a small area that can actually frame that right. By small area, I mean a place between two rocks with exactly enough room for all of one person. When you have to share this location with four other people it requires congeniality and the ability to work quick and rotate through the spot.
Luckily there are other options for images in the area too and I highly recommend making a visit here.
This last trip was something a little different for the Grapevine Hills. I wanted to photograph the Milky Way with the Balanced Rock so we took a backroad site nearby. Then we hiked up to the rock for sunset images. Because of the way the hills block the view west, you rarely see sunset images here.
The clear sky meant I had no clouds to work with so I set about working a longer lens image photographing the desert and Nugent Peak through the rock window. The upside to the clear sky was I knew that when I came back at 4am I would have great conditions for the Milky Way.
I was up and going by 3am from the campsite, did the hike and was deep in the hills before 4am. I could see the Milky Way rising and knew that getting here early was going to pay off.
I walked up to the rock and framed up the Balanced Rock with the Milky Way filling the sky. I set to work with two cameras:
Canon 5D2 with Bower 24mm f/1.4
Canon 6D with Bower 14mm f/2.8
I started making images of the stars with silhouetted rocks. Then I started working with light painting. I used my headlamp, a handheld flashlight and a portable flash unit. I found the handheld flashlight to be the easiest to work with. Yes, that puts a bit more of a variable to the equation than the constant output of a flash, but I found it more versatile overall in use.
I worked several different angles and compositions until I felt I had enough basic images with the Balanced Rock and then moved down the trail a few hundred yards to a spot I had passed on the way up that had looked promising. I would stay there sunrise.