Just Another Day at the Grand Canyon

I found myself at Grand Canyon once again with hopes of interesting storms and lightning as well as sunset and astrophotography.

Cumulus towers developing south of Grand Canyon.
Cumulus towers developing south of Grand Canyon.

Late in the afternoon, these two cumulus towers south of Grand Canyon suggested that the next few hours could be interesting. Less than one-half hour later, the convection had become a Cumulonimbus with lightning. The storm was a fair distance away so that the lightning bolts were small—and in the wrong location. I had hoped to photograph a storm with lightning over the canyon but it was not to be.

Thunderstorms and lightning.
Thunderstorms and lightning.

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Sedona Sunset Storms

A few days ago I was in the right place at the right time and watched thunderstorms at sunset that were producing lightning strikes across the nearby cliffs and mountains. The sun was low and was producing warm sunset colors on the hills and rain—and lightning.

Sedona Sunset Storm.
Sedona Sunset Storm.

This is a composite of several images taken over a period of six minutes.

Biking and hiking in Durango

After an early start to the summer rainy season, the pattern reverted back to hot and dry across the southwest. And not just for a day or two but for more than a week. Two weeks, even.

With continued warm and dry weather expected we headed to Durango, Colorado, for a few days of mountain biking and hiking. We already had a few ideas for trails and we figured we’d get more while in town.

On our first day of riding we did the Dry Fork–Colorado Trail–Hoffheins loop with an extension on the Colorado Trail to the local “high point” giving us a total of about 17 miles. There were plenty of wildflowers along the Colorado Trail section along with occasional views of distant peaks. We also saw a family of wild turkey but, as usual, they were easier to see than to photograph.

The start of Dry Fork Trail under a stand of oak trees.
The start of Dry Fork Trail under a stand of oak trees.
Dry Fork and Colorado Trail intersection. The map says this is "unmarked" and "easy to miss." Need to update the map!
Dry Fork and Colorado Trail intersection. The map says this is “unmarked” and “easy to miss.” Need to update the map!

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Milky Way and Wupatki National Monument

With exceptionally clear skies, a waxing cresent moon in the west, and the Milky Way rising in the east it was time to head out and photograph…something wonderful.  And so we set out for Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.

Here is what the National Park Service has to say about this structure:

An architect today might win an award for designing Wukoki Pueblo. The corners, angles, and lines of masonry are meticulous. From its base, the eye is drawn skyward to a height that inspires awe of this ancient craftsmanship.

Indeed, the lines of this remarkable structure do draw your eyes upwards to the stars and the Milky Way. How often was this view seen by those who lived here ca. 1100–1200 A.D?

The setting crescent moon gently lights the sides of Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
The setting crescent moon gently lights the sides of Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Wukoki Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Road to the Stars. The Milky Way stands above an Arizona road.
Road to the Stars. The Milky Way stands above an Arizona road.

Soon…soon…the summer rains will return.

 

Lightning and rainbows and storms. Oh, my!

The summer thunderstorm season got off to a slightly early start this year with moisture flowing northward into northern Arizona in late June. A more typical start would be the first or second week of July. However, you won’t get complaints from most folks about the early start as it signals the end of wildfire season.

Rainbow over Grand Canyon.
Rainbow over Grand Canyon.

The highlight this early in the season is this rainbow seen from Yavapai Point on the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The rainbow spans nearly 3/4 of a full circle and contains both primary and secondary bows. Rainbows typically are at least 50% hidden owing to the horizon. Only when the horizon is lower than the observer—e.g., from a mountaintop or over a canyon—will more than 50% be visible.

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A preview of the monsoon

The North American Monsoon (NAM) is slowly developing across northern Mexico but has not yet spread northward into Arizona. Nonetheless, some tropical moisture moved northward across the state and produced some showers and thunderstorms. In fact, one thunderstorm produced almost 1/2 inch of rain on the southwest side of Flagstaff (including my house!) and the temperature dropped more than 25°F resulting in pleasant conditions.

These storms produced a cool outflow boundary that pushed southward off the Mogollon Rim and into the lower elevations. These outflows can result in new thunderstorms forming over Sedona—one of my favorite places for photographing storms and lightning. And so I headed to Sedona.

The outflow boundary was apparent as a line of shallow cumulus clouds roughly aligned east to west across the area. I selected a spot on Upper Red Rock Crossing Road to shoot towards Cathedral Rock and then waited for lightning.

Evening sunlight spreads across Cathedral Rock.
Evening sunlight spreads across Cathedral Rock.

It was a long wait.

From first test photo to first lighting was a little over an hour. I’m patient but I almost gave up.Then, suddenly, a flash across the sky. Missed it—because I was zoomed in too tight. A moment later—another flash and this one I got. And that was it. No more flashes.

Lightning strikes behind Pyramid Peak.
Lightning strikes behind Pyramid Peak.

Time to move to another location and shoot twilight colors. I often find myself at the defunct Sedona Cultural Park because it has wide open vistas to the west (at least for now). I arrived as the sun was setting and everyone else was leaving. But the so-called “Blue Hour” can be the best time. If you take long exposures, you can get some really nice colors. I particularly liked this cloud because of the thin streamers of precipitation falling with twilight colors in the background.

Thin streamers of precipitation fall as the twilight fades.
Thin streamers of precipitation fall as the twilight fades.

A day later and the moisture has moved out of the area resulting in more typical hot, dry days with clear blue skies. Boring.

Moonset over Lake Mary

During the summer months the waxing crescent Moon sets in the west-northwest and lines up with Upper Lake Mary casting a long reflective glow on the water. With this in mind, I set out to capture images of the Moon just two days past new Moon and with only about 6% of the disk directly illuminated. During this lunar phase the dark portion of the Moon is faintly lit by reflected light called Earthshine.

First came the sunset...
First came the sunset…

I arrived early and watched the fading colors of sunset then began my wait for the skies to darken. The first image shows the crescent Moon fairly high in the sky with patches of clouds between it and the horizon.

Moon above Lake Mary.
Moon above Lake Mary.
Moon with reflection on Lake Mary.
Moon with reflection on Lake Mary.

About 45 minutes after the first image I was able to get this photograph as the Moon was approaching the horizon and leaving a long reflective trail across the lake.

Another Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock

A few weeks ago I attempted to photograph the nearly full moon as it rose from behind Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona. On previous shoots of this type, I have used The Photographers Ephemeris (TPE) to determine where I should be located so that the moon will rise between the spires of this rock. My experience with TPE has been very good and typically I only have to make small adjustments to my position to get the perfect alignment.

For this event, I used TPE but I also wanted to test PhotoPills, an iPhone app. One of the features of PhotoPills is AR (“augmented reality”). What AR does is use the phone camera and superimpose the position of the moon and its track on the image seen by the camera.

As I approached my shooting location (as previously determined by TPE), I checked my position using PhotoPills. PhotoPills was telling me that my position needed to change; i.e., that I was already too far south and had to move back to the north. According to PhotoPills, the moon would rise to the south (right) of Cathedral Rocks. I was fairly certain at this point that TPE was right and PhotoPills was wrong.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. In the first photo, the moon has begun to rise to the left (north) of Cathedral Rock. At this time, PhotoPills was still indicating it would rise to the right (south) of Cathedral Rock (i.e., the far right edge of the photo).

Moonrise near Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.
Moonrise near Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.

That’s a pretty big error.

It turns out that PhotoPills can only be as good as the GPS and compass in the iPhone and those may not be very accurate. PhotoPills should not be blamed for what is an iPhone issue.

As the moon rose, I quickly moved to the south to attempt to get it between the spires but it was rising faster than I could reposition myself and I did not get the photograph that I wanted. That’s fine—as I have done this before and have a few great shots of the moon rising behind Cathedral Rock. (See, for example, Moonrise 1; Moonrise 2)

Moonrise near Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.
Moonrise near Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.

I’ll be using TPE for my next moon rise photo. I like PhotoPills for some of the other features it has—just not this one.

Transit of Mercury 2016

On Monday, 09 May 2016, Mercury transited the Sun. The transit or passage of Mercury across the face of the Sun is a relatively rare occurrence and there are approximately 13 transits of Mercury each century. The next transit will be in 2019. If you missed this one, you don’t have to wait too long for the next one. But if you miss that one, you will have to wait until 2032 for another chance.

A typical transit lasts several hours. During a transit, Mercury can be seen as a very small black disk moving across the face of the Sun.

The transit was already in progress as the sun rose across the western states. This meant that I could capture an image of the sun with Mercury in transit and have some interesting foregrounds as a dark silhouette. I had hoped to capture images as the sun moved between the spires of Cathedral Rock but the geometry didn’t quite work out. The location with the best alignment also had obstacles in the way. So, on to a second choice. This option had the sun rising from the southern edge of Cathedral Rock.

The first image shows the rising sun with rocks and trees on Cathedral Rock forming a dark silhouette. Mercury can be seen as a faint dark spot just above the outline of the tree.

Mercury transiting the sun as it rises from behind Cathedral Rock.
Mercury transiting the sun as it rises from behind Cathedral Rock.

The second image is a composite of two images taken ~3 hours apart showing the movement of Mercury across the face of the sun. I took photos for about 15–20 minutes after sun rise then put the equipment away so that we could do a trail run in the area. When we returned, the transit was still in progress and I took a few more images — allowing me to create the composite.

Composite image showing the motion of Mercury.
Composite image showing the motion of Mercury.

These images were taken with a “consumer-type” zoom camera (Panasonic Lumix FZ150) which has a maximum zoom of 600 mm (equivalent) focal length. I used a 10-stop neutral density filter (ND3.0) which blocks ~99.9% of the light allowing a reasonable exposure (ISO 100; f/6.3, 1/2000 s).

Mercury is small. Even with the large (equivalent) focal length, the planet in transit makes only a very small dot in the image. Compare this with Venus, which transited the sun in 2012 and is more easily visible against the disk of the sun.

The next few transits of Mercury are in 2019, 2032, and 2039. The next transit of Venus is in 2117. Yes, 2117! So I’m happy to have seen the Venus transit in 2012 and the Mercury transit in 2016. They are more rare than total eclipses of the sun. The next total eclipse of the sun across North America is 2017.

Milky Way rises above a moonlit Cathedral Rock

The Milky Way rises above Cathedral Rock which is lit by the setting crescent moon. To the right, the triplet of Mars, Saturn, and Antares in the constellation Scorpius stand out as the brightest points of light. In the center of the triangle formed by these three objects lies the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex, a nebula of gas and dust that appear in the image as dark bands.

Milky Way and Cathedral Rock.
Milky Way and Cathedral Rock.

This is a composite of two images. The first was taken of Cathedral Rock as the moon was setting in the west. An exposure of 120 seconds at ISO 400 and an aperture of f/4 was used. The second image was taken a short time later after the moon had set allowing the fainter stars in the night sky to appear. This image was 8 minutes at ISO 400 and an aperture of f/4. To prevent streaking of the stars an iOptron Sky Tracker was used. The two images were then blended together.

There will be several more opportunities during the spring and early summer for images like this as the moon sets in the west and the Milky Way rises in the east.

Rho Ophiuchi.
Rho Ophiuchi.

As twilight began in the east and the stars began to fade I switched lenses to a short telephoto to zoom in on Rho Ophiuchi to better show the dark dust present in this nebula. This is a 120-second exposure at f/2.8 and ISO 400 using an 85 mm lens.