Some years it’s easy to get great photographs of the changing colors of aspen leaves in northern Arizona. The weather is good, the timing is right, you’re in the perfect place. It all comes together.
That wasn’t this year.
We set out several times on the mountain bikes to see and enjoy the color. First we were too early; then we were too late. We were out of town on a long-planned trip and the peak color season occurred while we were gone. It happens.
Not that I’m complaining. I’ve been able to get good photographs many times in the past and there will be opportunities again in coming years.
So here is a collection of pre-season photos, post-season photos, and a few from several years ago comparing colors in the Inner Basin on similar dates but different years.
Based on previous years, I thought we might still find some great color in the Inner Basin this late in the season. We certainly did in 2014—but not 2017.
And here are a couple from 2015—another good year for aspen photography.
An early snowfall on the higher summits juxtaposed with the aspen almost at their peak made an interesting composition. Getting this view required more hiking and climbing that anticipated—but ultimately worth it.
The monsoon season officially ends in Arizona on September 30 but convective activity ended a week or two ago. But the monsoon provided a great “end-of-season” show.
Several clusters of thunderstorms were moving from the lower elevations up onto the Mogollon Rim on the evening of September 13. I haven’t been able to get any good shots of lighting reflected in water in recent years so I decided to try again—this time along the shores of upper Lake Mary.
I was not disappointed.
The early storms were distant to the west resulting in images with only small flashes. Another cluster of storms was to the southwest—moving to the northeast. Several flashes produced dramatic branches out the top of the storm and into the starry sky.
The storms were moving directly towards me and I had to quit when they got too close. My comfort zone on these storms was about 12 miles. Close enough.
I first started thinking about the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse (TSE) about ten years ago. I looked at the path of totality and then began to figure out where good places to shoot the eclipse with interesting foregrounds might be. One of my first choices was Alliance, Nebraska, home of CarHenge. A lot of other folks considered this location as well.
Then I began to look carefully at the sun angles and realized the eclipse was near mid day and the sun would be high in the sky. Getting this shot to work would require a wide- or ultrawide-angle lens and that would result in a very small solar disk. Hmm—not quite what I wanted.
After pondering this for a few years (yes, years) I decided to forego the wide-angle view with an interesting background and do a close-up using a telephoto lens. Just the sun—no foreground. That simplified the issue because almost anyplace would work. So, where?
I’ve spent a fair bit of time in this part of Wyoming and Nebraska as part of my storm chasing and storm photography so I had a fairly good idea of places that might work. For a few years, I planned on using the Orin Jct Rest Area located along I-25 in eastern Wyoming. That should work. After all, not that many people were going to be there. Right?
Well, things changed in the year and months leading up to the TSE. Every media outlet was running stories and the public was getting pretty enthusiastic about this eclipse. My plan didn’t look so good anymore.
I spent several months looking for alternatives and eventually narrowed it down to a few locations in eastern Wyoming. Using aerial maps I was able to find pullouts along roads and highways and figured that these could work. Other folks probably had the same idea. Hmmm…
Glendo, Wyoming, kept coming up in my short list. They are a small town but realized that they were in the center of totality and they were going to be visited by a great many people. I decided to be one of them but held out for some of my other options.
We left Denver on Sunday afternoon to drive to our hotel in Wheatland, Wyoming. I had booked it almost a year in advance and checked several times over the months to make certain my reservation still existed. It did. Good. Traffic to Wheatland was not bad but heavier than normal. That was expected. Upon arrival, we drove a few miles more to one of the alternate Rest Areas (Dwyer Junction) I had selected and discovered folks were already filling the parking lot with cars, campers, and telescopes. This did not bode well for arriving here the following morning. Glendo was looking more and more like the best choice.
The next morning we awoke early and headed out the door around 5:15 a.m. for the 30 minute drive up the highway to Glendo. Travel was quick and traffic was light. And then we crested a hill and all I could see was billions (well, maybe thousands) of tail lights on cars moving very slowly. Oh, no! This might be a problem. Although we moved at a crawl, we did move and we arrived in the field at Glendo by around 6:30 a.m. and I was taking test photos just a few minutes later.
We had arrived at our destination with plenty of time to spare. That was a major success. Now, all we had to do was wait a few hours for the spectacle to begin.
I had considered different cameras—including cameras I already have and cameras I might rent. I thought about different lenses for my cameras. I even rented a telephoto lens a few months earlier to test and eventually decided not to use it for the eclipse.
Right up to the moment I got into the car in Flagstaff I was still trying to decide between my Nikon D750 full-frame DSLR and 80-200mm f/4 manual focus lens versus my Panasonic Lumix FZ150 25-600mm (equivalent) “bridge” camera. I had already tested and compared both extensively. The Nikon would give me better images (larger sensor, newer technology) and I could easily run of a set of bracketed images without touching the camera. The Lumix would give me a much larger image of the Sun/Moon but would require constant attention to focus and manually setting all the bracketed images.
I chose the Lumix. I decided that I wanted bigger images rather than better images. After all, I had used a Nikon D700 and 50mm lens to shoot the annular eclipse in 2012 so I wanted to do something different. So, the Lumix won. And I didn’t regret that decision at all. As I said, I had tested both and concluded I could get good enough images from either system.
I had spent months planning—and practicing—how I was going to shoot and observe the eclipse. And when it happened, I still forgot a few things and made a few mistakes. Here are a few of my post-eclipse notes:
And, then, it began. A small nick in the sun from the encroaching moon. Crowds were briefly excited but quickly became subdued as we waited for totality. It was warm, but slowly cooled as the sun’s disk was blocked. The light became soft. Crescent sun shadows were everywhere. It became cooler and darker as we neared Totality. Twilight was upon us but the sun was still too bright to watch. The Diamond Ring effect was stunning and the crowds were in awe. A few more seconds and TOTALITY. It became dark and we could look at the sun and see a “hole in the sky.” It was an emotional moment and I was surprised.
I forgot to look around me for the shadow and light in the distance. I forgot to look for the planets in the sky. I forgot to look for the “shadow bands.” I did remember to take photos at a variety of exposures but forgot some important details. I forgot a lot of things but I’ll never forget TOTALITY.
It was over too quickly and the Diamand Rings reappeared, followed by a thin crescent. The moment was gone—but the memory will remain.
In spite of the mistakes, I still managed to capture some good images.
I shot several images on the Lumix every 15 minutes and kept checking focus. Still, several images were not sharp. That is where the 80-200mm f/4 lens for the Nikon would have been better since it has manual focus with a hard stop at infinity. So easy to focus. As totality approached, the Lumix began having trouble focusing. Oh, no! But it managed. And during totality, I made certain that the camera did not go into “sleep” mode as that would require focusing again.
The only real mishap was with the Sony RX10 which I used as a secondary camera. I wanted to shoot images in wide angle (24mm equivalent) during totality but I was so busy with the Lumix that I was rushed shooting with the Sony. I should have already had it on the tripod—in fact, it was on the tripod earlier but I took it off to shoot photos of the crowd. So I shot hand-held images at very long exposures but a few of them were good enough.
Earlier, I had accepted the idea that even if all my cameras failed and all my pictures failed I would still consider it a success if I witnessed Totality. There would be thousand, even millions, of great pictures to look at from other photographers. All I needed was to see it.
It was a success. Totality was so amazing that it is hard to describe.
The last few days have provided opportunities for photographing lightning and moonbows. A moonbow, of course, is nothing more than a rainbow that is lit by the light of the moon rather than the sun. Although not rare, I’ve never had an opportunity to photograph a moonbow before. Even better, it was a double moonbow. And, to make it even better, there was lightning to go along with it.
A short time-lapse video is available. The video covers a period of 24 minutes compressed into 8 seconds.
The previous evening I was also shooting lightning in Sedona and was able to capture this beautiful cloud-to-ground lightning bolt adjacent to Cathedral Rock. (Minor problem: it wasn’t in sharp focus. Oh, well.)
The North American Monsoon continues across the Southwest bringing thunderstorms almost every day to northern Arizona. Rainfall amounts across much of the state have been well above average with Flagstaff receiving 4.5″ compared to a normal of 2.6″ in the month of July,
Of course, all this storminess brings opportunities for photographing interesting skies, lightning, and sunsets.
I was heading towards the South Rim of Grand Canyon when I decided that Wupatki National Monument might be more interesting. Although there wasn’t much in the way of lightning there was a nice sunset with a thunderstorm in the distance.
Another day brought a great sunset with beams of light illuminating the inner canyon.
I found myself in Sedona a few nights later hoping for lightning at sunset. The lightning was there but clouds to the west blocked the light of the setting sun. This spectacular bolt of anvil lightning traveled horizontally for a great distance before terminating above Cathedral Rock.
Early afternoon cumulus development near Marshall Lake on Anderson Mesa resulted in this small cumulus cloud producing a very photogenic shadow.
And, later that afternoon, we found ourselves at Lower Lake Mary watching another cumulus cloud develop to our east and reflected in the water.
I’ve been trying to capture evening thunderstorms and lightning (image) over Grand Canyon with a crescent moon illuminating the interior the canyon. Not very easy to do. I was able to get the moonlit canyon. And there was lightning but it was over 100 km away and resulted in teeny, tiny bolts in the phots. Well, I’ll just keep trying.