It’s cold outside…and I don’t want to get up and shoot photos!

We’ve had several days of snow across northern Arizona with about 20 inches measured in Flagstaff — and lesser amounts in the lower elevations. Snow levels were low enough that Sedona recorded snow but little or no accumulation. That means that a few inches or more fell and accumulated in Oak Creek Canyon. When there is snow on the red rock the scenery can be amazing and worth photographing. Even if it’s cold outside.

Morning light illuminates the red rock walls of Oak Creek Canyon above Slide Rock State Park. (HDR image)
Morning light illuminates the red rock walls of Oak Creek Canyon above Slide Rock State Park. (HDR image)

All things considered, it wasn’t too bad. Temperatures were in the mid-teens when I left Flagstaff and were in the mid-20s near Slide Rock State Park. This is much warmer than last year when I shot photographs at Slide Rock State Park.

Snow clings to the steep walls of Oak Creek Canyon. (HDR image)
Snow clings to the steep walls of Oak Creek Canyon. (HDR image)

To add to the visual interest, there were clouds clinging to the upper walls of the canyon that caught the early morning sun.

Wispy clouds swirl around the cliff tops of Oak Creek Canyon.
Wispy clouds swirl around the cliff tops of Oak Creek Canyon.

Because of the extreme dynamic range of light with dark shadows and brightly-lit snow I took multiple exposures and then experimented with HDR (high dynamic range) to tone map the results. Definitely a lot of fun but like many HDR images some of the results look a bit cartoonish. Nonetheless, presented here for your amusement.

Reflected sky in the deep pools of Oak Creek.
Reflected sky in the deep pools of Oak Creek.

 

So, I’m glad I got up early and braved the cold. The photos were worth it. After I finished shooting, I headed to Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market for coffee and a bagel.

 

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Winter

With the winter holidays presenting a few days off from work we decided to do a bit of close-to-home travel. Our destination was Page, Arizona, and from there we could visit some photographically-interesting sites as well as do some canyon hiking.

We arrived mid afternoon and headed for the Toadstools (also known as the Paria Rimrocks or the Rimrock Hoodoos), an otherworldly site that is part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Located between Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, it is easy to miss as there is only a small roadside sign and dirt parking lot as you travel on US Route 89. The trail is a short and easy hike of less than a mile.

Rimrock Hoodoos ("Toadstools") in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Rimrock Hoodoos ("Toadstools") in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

From the interpretive sign at the start of the trail: “What is a Toadstool? A toadstool is a spire-like feature with a boulder perched atop a pedestal rock, like a mushroom, or ‘toadstool’. It forms when softer rock erodes away, leaving a column sheltered from the wind and water.”

Such a mundane description for what are amazing pieces of natural rock art.

Rimrock Hoodoos ("Toadstools") in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Rimrock Hoodoos ("Toadstools") in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

With afternoon light beginning to fade the colors were amazing. The downside was that it’s late December and even in the desert southwest it can get pretty chilly in the late afternoon. Finally, the sun set and the sky darkened ending an enjoyable afternoon of exploration and photography.

Late afternoon lighting across the Toadstools region.
Late afternoon lighting across the Toadstools region.

The next day was spent at the better known Antelope Canyon — a part of the Navajo Nation Parks.

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation Parks, near Page, Arizona. (HDR image).
Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation Parks, near Page, Arizona. (HDR image).

We’ve been here a few times over the years but never get tired of viewing the fantastic sculpturing of the soft sandstone within the confines of this slot canyon.

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation Parks, near Page, Arizona.
Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation Parks, near Page, Arizona.

There are two distinct areas to visit: Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon. The upper canyon is much easier to walk as it has a smooth and generally flat sandy floor and is wide enough for people to move around. It is the recommended choice for those with limited hiking abilities or those that are uncomfortable in confined spaces. Lower Antelope Canyon requires moving through exceptionally narrow confines and climbing up and down steep ladders.

Snow melt pattern around a boulder in Catstair Canyon, Utah.
Snow melt pattern around a boulder in Catstair Canyon, Utah.

Lastly, we traveled back west towards Houserock Valley and did a short hike in Catstair Canyon. If you look carefully you will find some ancient petroglyphs on the sandstone walls of this short canyon. Far more interesting to us, however, was the snow melt pattern around this volleyball-sized boulder.

Watching the International Space Station amidst the scenery of Sedona

As readers of this site already know, I enjoy photographing the International Space Station (ISS) as it makes its twilight flyovers. Most of my ISS images have been taken in Flagstaff and nearby environs. Recently, however, I made a trip to the lower elevations of Sedona to attempt to photograph the ISS amidst the scenery of Sedona.

This transit only got to about 20 degrees elevation above the horizon so it was important to find a location with a good view to the northwest — but also an interesting view. After looking at the ephemeris for the transit (rise time, highest elevation, set time, etc.) I decided that I could get an interesting photograph from the Brins Mesa trailhead area north of Sedona.

We arrived about 15 minutes before the transit so there was enough time to survey the area and select the most appropriate spot to set up the tripod and camera. After a few test shots, I was ready for the transit. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying close attention and I missed the first 10-20 seconds as it rose in the west. No problem! I started the camera but then realized I had failed to set the shutter to continuous shooting mode. I use continuous mode so that I can take a series of 10-15 second exposures then composite them later. By keeping the exposures short there is less chance of overexposing the twilight sky.

All was not lost as I only missed the first two 10-second images but managed to capture the next seven images. After compositing the individual images in Photoshop and using the Lighten blend mode, I got the following result:

International Space Station (ISS) transiting the evening twilight sky in Sedona, Arizona.

There was a bit of camera shake in the first image as I was still fiddling with camera settings while the shutter was open! But overall the image managed to capture what I set out to do: photograph the ISS as a long streak of light with the fabulous Red Rocks of Sedona as a foreground.

Exposure bracketing and high dynamic range (HDR)

In the past my only attempts at exposure bracketing were with a film camera and were limited to one or two additional images shot with minor variations in f-stop or shutter speed. Then, when developed, I would select the best image and put aside the others.

All that has changed with digital.

HDR image from Upper Waterholes Canyon in northern Arizona.
HDR image from Upper Waterholes Canyon in northern Arizona.

Recently I had a chance to explore a slot canyon in northern Arizona. Typical of many slot canyons is the significant variation in light from very deep shadows to brilliant sunlit canyon walls. My best images in these slot canyon have always been compositions that minimize this large variation. But with automatic exposure bracketing and the many available software packages to process the images it was time to give HDR a try.

With just a few images and using Photomatix HDR software I was able to bring out the subtle colors in the deep shadows of the lower canyon wall while capturing the more brilliant colors in the sunlit upper wall.

HDR image of Lake Powell at twilight.
HDR image of Lake Powell at twilight.

A second HDR image is able to capture both the well-lit areas and the shadows as twilight approaches over Lake Powell north of Page, Arizona.