Monsoon thunderstorms continue across Northern Arizona

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.

Sunset at Citadel Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.
Sunset at Citadel Pueblo in Wupatki National Monument.

Another day brought a great sunset with beams of light illuminating the inner canyon.

Sunset from Lipan Point, Grand Canyon National Park.
Sunset from Lipan Point, Grand Canyon National Park.

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.

Lightning over Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.
Lightning over Cathedral Rock, Sedona, Arizona.

Early afternoon cumulus development near Marshall Lake on Anderson Mesa resulted in this small cumulus cloud producing a very photogenic shadow.

Cumulus cloud over Marshall Lake.
Cumulus cloud over Marshall Lake.

And, later that afternoon, we found ourselves at Lower Lake Mary watching another cumulus cloud develop to our east and reflected in the water.

Cumulus cloud reflected in Lower Lake Mary.
Cumulus cloud reflected in Lower Lake Mary.

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.

A crescent moon illuminated the interior of Grand Canyon.
A crescent moon illuminated the interior of Grand Canyon. (120 second exposure, f/4, ISO 200, 16mm)

Lightning Across Northern Arizona—2017

The North American Monsoon is now in full swing across the southwest and Arizona. This brings thundershowers almost every day to northern Arizona along with a chance to photograph lightning.

I have been photographing lightning for a long time with my earliest images using an old manual focus/exposure camera with film. Those were challenging because you had to guess at the exposure (although there were many fine articles online even then on camera settings). There was no way to do a quick check of the exposure to see if it was good. On the other hand, we usually shot in the evening or nighttime hours using long exposures of several seconds or more so you were usually pretty certain whether you had the shutter open at the right moment.

With digital, everything has changed. You can instantly check your image and see whether or not you captured the lightning. There are several lightning triggers on the market that will fire the shutter for you.

Here are some recent images taken in several different locations over the past few weeks.

Twilight lightning over the North Rim, Grand Canyon.
Twilight lightning over the North Rim, Grand Canyon.

These were mainly in-cloud flashes so the best option was to leave the shutter open for 10-15 seconds. The longer exposure also allows some stars to appear in the image.

Lightning near Kendrick Peak in northern Arizona.

Lightning near Kendrick Peak in northern Arizona.

Early evening thunderstorms move into Flagstaff, Arizona.
Early evening thunderstorms move into Flagstaff, Arizona.
Sunset lightning in Sedona, Arizona.
Sunset lightning in Sedona, Arizona.

 

Winter mountain biking in Sedona

Winter is fading away in the higher elevations of northern Arizona. Snow has melted across much of the area allowing the trails to be used again for walking, running, and, especially, mountain biking. While the trails were covered in snow this winter we did most of our mountain biking in Sedona. Although snow does fall there, it rarely lasts long. Here are a few photographs from Sedona mountain biking this winter.

Chuckwagon Trail in the Dry Creek area. Snow lingered in the shadows making for interesting travel.
Chuckwagon Trail in the Dry Creek area. Snow lingered in the shadows making for interesting travel.
Occasionally we had to walk around the ice. This is in a mostly dry wash near the Rabbit Ears.
Occasionally we had to walk around the ice. This is in a mostly dry wash near the Rabbit Ears.

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The Milky Way and Cathedral Rock

Winter is slowly coming to an end and we are about to transition into the warmer months of spring and summer. During these upcoming months, the center of our galaxy—known as The Milky Way—will be rising earlier each evening.

Milky Way rises above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
Milky Way rises above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

For photographers—and just about everyone else, too—staring up on a clear, moonless night with the Milky Way glowing above can be a magical experience. For those who live in brightly-lit cities, however, the Milky Way can be difficult or even impossible to see. From an article at PBS:

Light pollution — the needless shining of bright lights into the night sky — has robbed whole generations of the chance to see nature on its largest scale. It is estimated that as many as eighty percent of all the people alive today have never even glimpsed the Milky Way. (When a massive power outage struck southern California in the 1990s, Los Angeles residents reportedly called 911 to express alarm about strange clouds hovering overhead; they were seeing the Milky Way for the first time.)

With the rapid advancement of digital cameras in the past decade the ability to take images of the night sky has become remarkably easier. Not easy—just easier. Cameras can now take long exposures at high ISO settings to reveal details of the night sky not easily visible to the unaided eye. This has resulted in magnificent photographs of the Milky Way but also other objects such as comets and Deep Sky Objects (DSO).

Still, long exposures of the night sky can result in the stars leaving streaks (i.e., “star trails”) across the image. This is the result not of the stars moving, of course, but the earths’ rotation. Typical wide-angle lenses used for photographing the Milky Way are limited to about 15 to 30 seconds before trails become obvious. In order to capture enough night-sky light at these exposures requires high ISO settings which can add considerable noise to the image. Of course, sometimes star trails are desired as seen in the image below:

Star trails above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.
Star trails above Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona.

Another option is to use a tracking device that follows the motion of the stars (or, more correctly, counteracts the rotational motion of the earth) allowing the camera to take very long exposures without star trails. The downside of this technique is while the stars remain pin points of light, the ground is blurred as the camera slowly moves during the exposure.

Long exposure without tracking (left) and with tracking (right).
Long exposure without tracking (left) and with tracking (right).

The solution requires taking multiple images: one of the stars with the star tracker on and a second image of the ground with the tracker turned off.

The image shown at the top of this post is a composite to two images: one of the stars and one of the ground.

The star image was taken using the iOptron Skytracker, a relatively inexpensive tracker. The image was shot using a low sensitivity (ISO 400) to minimize sensor noise. The lens was an ultra-wide 16mm shot at f/4 and the duration of the exposure was 534 seconds (~9 minutes). The exposure for the foreground was shorter in duration (4 minutes) and at a higher sensitivity (ISO 1600).

The two images were combined as layers in Photoshop. Masks were applied to each of the images and then blended so that the pin-point stars on one image and the sharp foreground of the other image remained.

It turns out that taking the images was the easy and fun part. Standing around in the middle of the night watching stars, meteors, and satellites cross the sky can be very enjoyable. Not surprisingly, the blending of the images took many attempts and much time.

Water in the desert

It has been a wet autumn with precipitation amounts well above average for both the month and season. This has resulted in water flowing in some of the small seeps, springs, and streams in the Red Rock country of Arizona.

After a trail run earlier last week to view the water in the desert I returned a second time with photographic intentions. I was particularly interested in the tinajas located in a small side canyon. There had been running water—albeit a slow trickle—on that first trip and I was interested in capturing images of the water.

Brilliant blue skies above a series of small tinajas in Sedona, Arizona.
Brilliant blue skies above a series of small tinajas. The largest tinaja at the base of the pouroff is almost 2 meters in diameter.

Although only a few days had passed between trips the flow of water had noticeably diminished; it will likely take another substantial rain event to bring the water levels back.

Sky and trees are reflected in the tinaja.
Sky and trees are reflected in the tinaja.

Even so, the tinaja was still full of clear water and made for an excellent subject with bright sunlight in the morning and soft shadows in the afternoon.

A water seep in the wall allows ferns to grow—and a small tree as well.
A water seep in the wall allows ferns to grow—and a small tree as well.

Farther up the side canyon was this wall with a water seep that allows a few ferns to take hold and grow. While this is fairly common, the tree growing out of the ferns is decidely less so.