John Martell’s Caddo Lake Milky Way

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How He Did It
by Bill Hedrick

Caddo Lake, bordering Texas and Louisiana, is a 25,400 acre lake and bayou named after the Caddo Indians who lived there until their expulsion in the 19th Century. It includes one of the largest flooded cypress forests in the United States. In the 1800’s, steamboats navigated up the Mississippi and Red Rivers and through Caddo Lake to reach the port of Jefferson, Texas.

It is a beautiful wilderness abundant with owls, snakes, frogs, bobcats, river otters, beavers, eagles, and alligators. John Martell has been there several times and recently reconnected once again to do something that is believed to be a first… to photograph the Milky Way on the waters of Caddo.


John is the owner of John Martell Fine Art Photography, a fine art gallery located in the heart of downtown Rockport, Texas. His stunning images are exquisitely printed on canvas, watercolor paper and metal in a variety of sizes ranging from as small as 8×10 inches to as large as 4×8 feet. His goal, when presenting an image, is to invite the viewer into a moment in time that has touched him emotionally. “Sometimes it is gorgeous light. Other times it is the feeling of mist hitting my face as I watch the ocean crash on the rocks below. These images provoke feelings of awe, of beauty, of wonder at how anything could be this magnificent,” he explains.

When shooting in the field, John does everything in his power to capture tack-sharp, color-saturated, and technically strong images. “Once captured, the artist in me takes over… blending images, taking the best from each… this is the artistic element,” says John. “In the end, I need my vision and my feelings to be accurately represented in a digital file.” For the final presentation, John selects from a variety of medium that best suits the feeling that has been created in the art piece.

On his visits to Caddo Lake, John chooses to use one of the local guides. “I try to never self guide when I travel for photography,” he explains. “Caddo Lake is a great example. If I set out in the dark, in the early morning or late evening to get a sunrise or sunset shot, it would be easy to waste time trying to find the best place to go for all the elements I’m looking for in my shot.” For his most recent visit, Martell utilized the services of Caddo Outback Tours guide, John Win. These guides are used to taking photographers to the most picturesque places on the lake and some of them have lived there all their lives. “John Win has a good reputation among photographers and knows where to go for the best light at certain times. We really depend on these photography guides,” says Martell

The natural beauty of Caddo Lake was an opportunity that kept drawing John Martell back again and again. He hadn’t planned the trip to Caddo Lake this summer, but much like the rest of the world in 2020, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic affected his travel photography plans this year. “A friend and I were supposed to take a trip to a volcano in Guatemala that you can safely view from a distance erupting every 45 minutes to an hour during this time of year, and I wanted to get some photos of the Milky Way above an erupting volcano,” Martell said. “Then we had planned to go to Glacier National Park, but due to COVID-19, and I’m 74 years old, I didn’t want to be on a plane, sitting close to people I don’t know, so I looked for places I could drive to by myself.”

On previous ventures, he captured vivid sunrises and sunsets along with the giant cypress trees with the sun’s rays peeking trough the Spanish Moss while others reveal the leaves of the trees lit up from below with shadows all around. “We call that ‘light painting’ when we use lights to make the definition of trees and other objects stand out when taking night photos. Otherwise, you would just see the trees in silhouette,” he explains. Some say those Cypress trees have been there for over 3,000 years. But on his most recent visit, Martell was seeking to capture a photograph of the Milky Way above the haunting Spanish moss-covered trees. The only problem was being on a boat in the middle of a body of water. That does not provide a sturdy base needed for a 2 time exposure and a rocking boat makes a tripod literally useless.


“To get a photo of the sky at night with the stars, you have to leave the shutter open longer, about 20 seconds, and allow for longer exposure, and you have to keep the camera rock steady,” Martell said. “Any movement during that longer exposure, you’d just see blurs instead of stars.” So, John Martell and his guide, John Win, came up with a novel solution. They grabbed a piece of galvanized pipe, stuck it down into the mud that sits at the bottom of the shallow areas of Caddo Lake, and put one leg of the camera’s tripod down inside the pipe, then attached the camera on top. Martell and Win named their invention the “pipe-pod.”

“We had a steady base now with the ‘pipe-pod’ and could allow for the longer exposure, and it worked,” Martell said. The resulting photo is reported to be the first of the Milky Way above Caddo Lake. “I searched on the internet to find a photo with that title and couldn’t find a single entry,” Martell said. Martell has more than 22,000 followers on his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/JohnMartellPhotography and has posted one photo a day, each day, for more than the past five years.

John Martell is the owner of John Martell Photography in Rockport, Texas. When he was a teenager, John received his first camera, a Polaroid, as a Christmas gift. That initial interest in photography progressed into an obsession and, over the years, he began photographing tons of sports photography as his own children went through their athletic careers. He moved to Rockport, Texas, from Boston, Massachusetts, and began photographing wildlife, landscapes, and seascapes. After joining the Rockport Center for the Arts, John eventually opened his own gallery. Eleven years later, he is still living his dream. Learn more about John and his work at www.JohnMartellPhotography.com.