It’s the middle of July and the North American Monsoon is in full swing now with near-daily thunderstorms across northern Arizona. It was time for another photo shoot in Sedona in hopes of getting great lightning shots with Sedona’s famous redrocks as a background. A few nice sunset photos wouldn’t be too bad, either.

After a quiet afternoon in Flagstaff with little in the way of thunderstorm activity, clouds finally began to develop in the late afternoon. A quick check of the radar data using RadarScope showed that thunderstorms were developing over the higher terrain of the Mogollon Rim and were moving slowly to the south-southwest. This would put some of these storms near or over Sedona in an hour or two. Time to jump in the car and head south.

Lightning over the Mogollon Rim.

Lightning over the Mogollon Rim.

Lightning near Courthouse Butte.

Lightning near Courthouse Butte.

It began to rain as I drove down the switchbacks into Oak Creek Canyon. This was the site of the Slide Fire in May and the threat of flash flooding exists whenever moderate-to-heavy rain falls in the area. Luckily, rainfall remained light and there was no threat.

Setting sun in Sedona, Arizona.

Setting sun in Sedona, Arizona.

A blaze of color as the sun sets in Sedona, Arizona.

A blaze of color as the sun sets in Sedona, Arizona.

My first location was on Upper Red Rock Loop Road with a view to the east so that I could capture lightning along with some of Sedona’s famous rocks — Courthouse Butte and Cathedral Rock. No luck today — but I did get some good images the previous day from this same location. Still, I was able to get several lightning strokes over the cliffs and create a composite image.

Lightning ("anvil crawlers")  after sunset.

Lightning (“anvil crawlers”) after sunset.

As the sun began to set, the activity shifted and it was time for another location and I headed to the Sedona Cultural Park. The sunset colors just got better…and better…and…well, you get the idea. And there was also plenty of lightning to shoot as twilight unfolded.

All-in-all, a very successful photo shoot.

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It’s been a dry spring—and before that, a dry winter—but the rains have finally arrived. The North American Monsoon has started across Arizona and it’s right on time. The rains usually arrive during the first two weeks of July. Rain started falling on the 2nd of July and hasn’t stopped yet. The average rainfall for July at the Flagstaff airport is 2.61″. We have already had 2.64″ and it’s only the first week. At least one location around town has had even more as shown by the rainfall map below.

Rainfall for 01-07 July 2014.

Rainfall for 01-07 July 2014.

Some of these storms have produced copious amounts of small hail. As the vast quantities of hail on the ground chill the near-surface air fog forms and is known appropriately as hail fog.

Hail fog.

Hail fog.

Most of this hail was pea sized or smaller—nothing large or severe. Even hours after the hail fell there were still piles of it along the side of the road.

Lots of small hail.

Lots of small hail.

It’s only the first week of the rainy season and I’m ready for a day with sunshine.

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Here are another set of images of the moon rise behind Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona. I had two locations preselected for the shots on this day. The first was located about one and one-half miles west of the rocks so that the moon’s disk would appear larger than the gaps between the rocks. We were on the eastern slopes of Pyramid Peak (the eastern summit of Scheurman Mountain). This setup worked as planned but since it was still early in the evening the sky was too bright and the moon appeared washed out. I did get the result I was seeking, however, which was the moon larger than the opening between the different rock columns.

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock—1st location.

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock—1st location.

 

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock—2nd location.

Moon rise behind Cathedral Rock—2nd location.

We moved to our second location—closer to Cathedral Rock which was now only one mile away—at the Red Rock Crossing/Crescent Moon picnic area. Many other photographers were assembled here but were scattered over a large area so that it wasn’t hard to secure a good spot for the next series of images. This time, the sky was darker and the moon was perfectly framed between the rock columns. I admit that I did not know, in advance, that it would work out this well. The Photographers Ephemeris can tell you the times and geometry of the setup but it can’t reveal how the size of the moon will compare with the rocks.

Lots of planning—and a little bit of good luck.

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Star trails track across the northern sky as the first quarter moon lights up the interior of the Grand Canyon as viewed from Yavapai Point. The sunset-viewing crowds had already departed leaving the point to ourselves to enjoy in the warm—and breezy—evening.

Star trails above the moonlit interior of the Grand Canyon.

Star trails above the moonlit interior of the Grand Canyon.

The glow on the northwestern horizon is from the “Galahad” wildfire burning on the Kaibab Plateau. The spot of light farther east on the rim is from the North Rim facilities of the park. The streak of light just left of bottom center is from the headlights of night time hikers. Given the very high temperatures encountered in the canyon at this time of the year, hiking at night can be a safe alternative to daytime travel. Finally, the spots of light towards the lower right are from Phantom Ranch where lodging and camping are available.

 

It’s been a productive few days for taking nighttime images of bright objects in the night sky including planets, stars and satellites.

On June 1, 2014, a check of the ephemeris for satellite passages noted that the International Space Station (ISS) would pass very close to Polaris (i.e., the “North Star”) at 2204 MST, followed by an Iridium flare at 2231 MST. I set up the camera to take 30s exposures from 2202-2232 MST so I could get a set of star trails with the ISS arcing across the northern sky. Two satellite flares can be seen in the lower right — the one I was expecting plus a bonus flare.

 

Star trails with the International Space Station.

Star trails with the International Space Station.

 

Venus and Iridium flare.

Venus and Iridium flare.

A few days later, on June 5, 2014, for just a few seconds the planet Venus (mag. -4.0) was only the second brightest object (rather than the brightest) in the eastern twilight sky as an Iridium flare brightened to magnitude -5.7.

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It’s spring and this is the time of the year when the moon rise behind the sunset-lit spires of Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona, can be breathtaking.

Two years ago, I took a 1-day workshop from Southwest Perspectives called “Sedona Full Moon Hunt.” We were taught not just how to use the camera for capturing the image but, more importantly, how to know when and where to position ourselves for these types of images.

There are several applications available for smart phones, tablets, and computers that provide this information. My program of choice is The Photographer’s Ephemeris. With this information in hand, one can position themselves in the right spot and wait for the moon to rise. The waiting part, however, can be tough as you wonder if you are in the “right” place. It’s a moment of relief, then, when the moon rises right where you expected it in the gap.

Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock.

Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock.

As the calendar marches forward into spring and early summer the location of the moon moves south relative to the rocks; it then moves north in the cooler season. It’s during the warmer months that it lines up best with the gaps between the spires.

 

Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock.

Moonrise behind Cathedral Rock.

If you get too close to the rocks the moon will appear small compared to the spires. Get farther away and the relative size of the moon appears much larger in comparison. But it’s never that easy. Some shooting locations are effortless to get to: drive, park, set up, done. Others require a bit of walking or hiking.

Getting in the right place is at least part of the enjoyment of capturing these images.

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A late season storm brought several inches of snow to Flagstaff a few days ago. Our crab apple tree had just burst forth with blossoms earlier in the week. For just a few hours there was a delightful juxtaposition of colorful blossoms and new snow.

New fallen snow and crab apple blossoms.

New fallen snow and crab apple blossoms.

 

Such is spring in northern Arizona. Warm and sunny days with occasional reminders of the departing winter.

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Did you get a chance to see the lunar eclipse?

The weather across northern Arizona was excellent with cloudless skies. It was a bit cold, however, with temperatures in Flagstaff falling from the lower 20s at the start to the upper teens at the end.

For a quick review of how a lunar eclipse occurs check out the Wikipedia and the NASA Eclipse sites.

 

Lunar eclipse of 14-15 April 2014.

Lunar eclipse of 14-15 April 2014.

Total Lunar Eclipse from 0445—1038 UTC on 15 April 2014 as seen in northern Arizona. This is a composite of nine images taken approximately at P1, U1, U2, Max Totality, U3, U4, and P4, plus additional images between U1 and U2, and between U3 and U4. The time of each image is given in UTC. The definitions of the P and U numbers are given in the Wikipedia article and also shown below:

LunarEclipse

The images were taken with a Nikon D700 using various f-stops, ISO settings, and exposure times. A Nikon 80-200mm f/4 lens was used for all images. Although this is a vintage manual focus lens it it produces remarkably sharp images. For a discussion of this lens, check out this site.

 

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Not too far from the highway and only a short walk from a challenging forest service road are some amazing panels of rock art. Welcome to Red Tank Draw.

The draw is a deep wash draining from Rarick Canyon on the Mogollon Rim into Wet Beaver Creek, often carrying cold snow melt in the early spring. But today the flow of water was quiet and gentle. It’s been a warm and dry winter, after all.

From an article in the Red Rock News:

“Petroglyphs are the main attraction but multicolored lichens growing on the sheer rock walls can be found here as well, some forming designs as intriguing as the etchings.”

“As ancient as the rock art, lichens are the unlikely combination of a fungus and an algae (although sometimes a fungus and a cyanobacterium)”

On this warm spring day, we wandered up and down the draw examining numerous panels of rock art. We’ve been here before and knew where to look so we went for our favorites.

Rock art panel containing the "sabre tooth cat" along with colorful lichen.

Rock art panel containing the “sabre tooth cat” along with colorful lichen.

This panel is often referred to as the “sabre tooth cat” panel. It looks like a sabre tooth cat but is probably a more common feline predator such as a bobcat.

The premiere panel of rock art found in Red Tank Draw.

The premiere panel of rock art found in Red Tank Draw.

But the best panel is found on a large sandstone wall that has evidence of geologically recent rockfall. As the sun moves westward and shadows creep across this face the rock art becomes more impressive until, finally, a single spear of light pierces across the rock wall.

 

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With exceptionally clear and dark skies it was a good time to capture an image of the zodiacal light. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this astronomical phenomenon.

Zodiacal light is a faint, roughly triangular, diffuse white glow seen in the night sky that appears to extend up from the vicinity of the Sun along the ecliptic or zodiac. It is best seen just after sunset and before sunrise in spring and autumn when the zodiac is at a steep angle to the horizon. Caused by sunlight scattered by space dust in the zodiacal cloud, it is so faint that either moonlight or light pollution renders it invisible.

With no moon and Flagstaff’s dark skies, it’s pretty easy to see the zodiacal light.

 

Zodiacal light seen over the Kachina Wetlands near Flagstaff, Arizona.

Zodiacal light seen over the Kachina Wetlands near Flagstaff, Arizona.

And speaking of dark skies, Flagstaff became the World’s First “International Dark Sky City”  way back on October 24, 2001. From the Flagstaff Dark Skies site:

In 1958, Flagstaff pioneered the world’s first lighting ordinance designed to preserve the night for astronomy. Since 1958, Flagstaff astronomers have mostly relied on quiet, friendly diplomacy to protect the night sky…

Flagstaff’s dry, clear skies and dark, cloudless nights drew Percival Lowell to town in 1894. The townspeople deeded the eccentric, wealthy Bostoner a pine-clad knoll atop the mesa immediately west of town as an observatory site, and built him a wagon road to reach it. The area became known as Mars Hill because of Lowell’s famous passion for the red planet.

An exposure of 30s, ISO3200, f/4 was enough to bring out the details of the white glow as well as its reflection in the waters of the Kachina Wetlands. At the top of the image is the bright planet Jupiter.

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