A few nights ago I had an opportunity to photograph the Milky Way under exceptionally clear skies. I wanted to do two things: One was to replicate an image I shot a few years ago and the other was to get a Milky Way/landscape composite with a moonlit foreground.
I headed out to Wupatki National Monument (an International Dark Sky Park) and set up in a dark parking lot with a moonlit landscape. The Moon was still well above the horizon and I took several long exposure images to get a good foreground. After the Moon had set, I shot the Milky Way (using a star tracker to eliminate star trails). Back at home, I would then merge the two images. The result is the image below showing the Milky Way aligned above the distant San Franciso Peaks with mesas rising on either side of the shallow valley. What also shows up is the large amount of light pollution in Flagstaff. Flagstaff is the worlds First International Dark Sky City but it takes a lot of work to keep the skies dark. I fear we may be losing the battle.
After completing this set of images, I moved to my next location to take my final shot. This is a single, 30-second image at high ISO (ISO 3200) with the tripod carefully centered on the stripe down the middle of the road. Comparing this shot with the one taken a few years ago indicates that the older image was blessed (if that’s the right word) with airglow in the lower part of the image giving it a much more interesting character. The newer image lacks this airglow but does have a more interesting horizon.
And now the North American Monsoon has begun to ramp up across the southwest and clear skies will be a rarity for the next few months. Time to start photographing storms and lightning!
It’s that time of year when the Milky Way is visible through much of the night. It is best observed when there is no Moon in the sky—and from very dark skies away from areas of light pollution. I wanted to capture both the Milky Way in a very dark sky and to capture Moonlight gently lighting up the still partially snow-covered mountains. So I headed out to Kendrick Park for some midnight sky photography.
The result is this composite of two images. The first was taken of the San Francisco Peaks as the moon was low in the west at around 1118 MST. This was a bit more than an hour before moonset (0030 MST). An exposure of 300 seconds at ISO 800 and an aperture of f/8 was used.
The second image was taken at 0047 MST shortly after the moon had set allowing the fainter stars in the night sky to appear. This image was also 300 seconds at ISO 800 and an aperture of f/5.6. To prevent streaking of the stars an iOptron Sky Tracker was used. The two images were then blended together.
Last week the two-day old crescent Moon (only 3.7% directly illuminated) provided a photo opportunity as it set over Upper Lake Mary. During the months of May, June, and July, the thin crescent Moon lines up with the long axis of Upper Lake Mary. This results in nice reflections of the Moon on the waters of the lake—but only if there is little or no wind. A bonus this month was the small planet Mercury was also setting in the northwest.
The image also shows the unlit part of the crescent Moon illuminated with Earthshine, also known as Da Vinci Glow. Yes, that Leonardo Da Vinci. Mercury can be seen just above the treetops on the far right side of the image.
I awoke before dawn on New Years Day and was greeted with clear skies and a crescent Moon with the planets Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the eastern sky. I drove out towards Mormon Lake anticipating great—albeit very cold—conditions for some sunrise snow photographs. On the way to the lake I encountered low clouds and patchy fog and there was nothing to be seen upon my arrival. It was already too close to sunrise to head back north or west so my only option was to wait and hope.
I missed the sunrise but about 20 to 30 minutes later the clouds cleared and the San Francisco Peaks were amazing. Low clouds and fog remained around the base of the peaks.
As the sun rose higher the side-lit rime ice on the wild grasses (i.e., weeds) at the Mormon Lake Overlook began to glisten and glow.
Temperatures were hovering in the low single digits and I was cold after standing around for about an hour. Time for breakfast and hot coffee.
The next day we hiked into West Fork Oak Creek knowing that the trail would be snow packed and there would be a dozen water crossings on ice—hopefully solid enough to support us. After several days of below freezing high temperatures and near or sub-zero overnight temperatures we were hopeful for safe ice.
There are several locations where water drips down the cliffs even at these cold temperatures resulting in wonderful icicles and bizarre ice sculptures on the ground.
We hiked to the “end” of the trail where it enters a narrow, rock-walled section of canyon often called “The Subway.” This was our turnaround spot.
On the way up the canyon we had not run into any other hikers. What a treat!
A winter storm in late February brought hope again of getting some photographs of the San Francisco Peaks covered in snow. So I departed before sunrise one morning to head out towards Mormon Lake. Because of the warm winter up through mid-February, most of Lower Lake Mary and Upper Lake Mary remained mostly ice free. With very cold early morning temperatures it was no surprise that there was fog over the relatively warm open waters of the lakes. When I left my house, the temperature was about +3°F. When I reached Lower Lake Mary, the temperature had fallen to -10°F—and there was considerable fog.
It was the same over Upper Lake Mary. I debated whether to change my plans and shoot photographs of the fog over this lake but after viewing the scene I chose to continue to the Mormon Lake Overlook. As I approached the overlook, I could see a layer of fog. Luckily, the overlook was just high enough to be above the fog.
It was a beautiful scene with a shallow layer of fog covering the lake bed and snow on the distant San Francisco Peaks.
After getting a few quick photos I set about to capture a panorama. I shot 12 images: 2 rows of 6 shots. The resulting image is huge and clocks in around 190 megapixels. I can make a print of this that’s 8 feet wide. But I probably won’t because I don’t have a wall large enough for something that big.
It was obvious that sometime during the night the fog layer was much deeper as all the grasses, bushes, and trees were covered with rime ice.
The rime created needles that pointed in the direction of the light wind that had been present during formation. As the sun rose above the horizon, the rime caught the light and sparkled brilliantly.
So we had fog over the lake bed, snow on the mountain, and rime ice on the grasses. What else? Well, a glory became visible as the sun rose high enough to illuminate the fog layer below me. And a short segment of a fog bow was also visible in the fog layer.
It has been a very dry autumn and early winter around these parts—but that finally changed as a winter storm moved across the area yesterday and today. On Tuesday afternoon clouds began to increase across the area and there was a cap cloud draped across the San Francisco Peaks.
Most, but not all, of Arizona received precipitation including Flagstaff. We have been without any significant precipitation since September 27 when 0.07″ of rain fell. Since then, we’ve had 0.01″ on November 17 and a Trace on December 21. That’s it. It’s been the driest period on record and the second latest first snowfall of the season. And it’s been warm.
Rain began to fall around 7:30 P.M. Tuesday evening then switched to snow around 10:15 P.M. as the cold front moved across the area. Prior to frontal passage we had several rounds of thunderstorms. At least one of these thunderstorms exhibited extreme right-mover characteristics as well as some weak rotation suggesting it may have been a supercell. With this winter storm Flagstaff received ~5″ of snow and 1.19″ of total water.
Although it was still mostly cloudy this morning, there was a gap in the clouds along the eastern horizon allowing sunshine to briefly illuminate the peaks shortly after sunrise.
The San Francisco Peaks are almost completely wrapped in clouds with only the summits visible. A few minutes later, the sun had risen high enough that it was above the clear gap and everything turned gray again.
This will be a short-lived episode as the forecast indicates a quick return to warm and dry conditions across the southwest.