It was a good winter for Arizona, unexpectedly so. A casual observation of the seasonal forecasts at the start indicated we were going to be in for a warmer, drier winter. It seems for a while now that warm, dry winters are the rule rather than the exception, so this news was received with a bit of resignation. I figured we’d have to content ourselves with the wet summer and once again hope the fire season won’t be bad. Fortunately, the forecasts proved to be wrong. As of writing this the Salt and Verde reservoirs are full, and flows are still strong. The Salt River has actually been flowing significantly through Phoenix for the first time in a long time.
Winter has since passed us by, and spring, too. It’s that time of the year when the nights are pleasantly cool and the afternoon temperatures warm enough to lull you into a springtime nap. Soon enough the full heat of summer will be here, and we’ll look back fondly on the snowscapes of the previous winter.
I took this picture along Horton Creek after one of the many snowstorms early in the season. The creek was flowing heavy with snowmelt and the banks on either side had plenty of ice and snow. I like the simple lines and colors of this composition. The sunlight sparkled off the icy crust adding interesting highlights and the rolling surface provided some depth to the image.
Typically, when fall comes to Arizona it does so incrementally, slowly working its way south from north and down from the high country to the lower deserts. There is variability year to year when the leaves start to change color and how long they last but fall inevitably comes.
Despite this regularity, I often find myself unprepared for those weekends when I do have time to go out and chase some fall color. By the time cooler weather sweeps the desert floors reminding me of the change in seasons the trees of the high country stand stark and bare, their bounty of color fading to brown on the forest floor. For 2022 I decided to be better prepared and scout out opportunities ahead of time, looking for new places to go. Oak Creek Canyon and Mt Humphreys are fantastic places for fall color if you don’t mind the crowds, but I was seeking the secluded and unexplored.
So, I spent a little time ahead of the change in season driving the forest roads of the Mogollon Rim, scouting out places to camp and hiking out into the woods looking for stands of trees that would make for good compositions. I also kept better records this time, marking locations that held promise as well as those that wouldn’t work.
I returned to one of those sites on a cold, cloudy morning that hinted of rain to come. For most of the day the rain never amounted to more than a intermittent drizzle, but there was enough to collect as beads of water on the leaves. My attention was drawn to the kaleidoscope of leaves on the forest floor, some freshly fallen and still bright with color. The sun occasionally slipped through the clouds, sending pools of light meandering across the ground, slowly fading into and out of the shadows. The light would sometimes linger in a spot, highlighting a freshly fallen leaf. The scene was fleeting, but I was able to capture the image posted here. My timing was a bit slow, however, and the light was fading when I took this shot, so I added a vignette in post processing to better convey what the scene was like.
Eventually the clouds grew heavier, the temperature dropped, and the rain began in earnest. I returned to my vehicle, reluctant to leave fall behind but content with my efforts for the day.
Summer has come and gone and we're well into winter. So this post is a bit delayed but I wanted to get it up as I'm planning for the coming Milky Way season.
For the final summer 2022 Milky Way shot I headed for the darker night skies of northern Arizona and the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I’ve been to the national park a number of times but haven’t really explored Kaibab National Forest that borders the park to the north. For this trip my brother and I decided to do a little exploring of parts unknown.
It was a productive trip for exploring, but the opportunity for photography was mostly a bust. The monsoon has been active this year and there was a good chance we’d have cloudy skies at night. But an active monsoon season also means a good chance of dramatic thunderstorms over the Grand Canyon, so I figured that either way we’d have good material. Unfortunately, it ended up being mostly clear during the day with storms rolling in during prime Milky Way time.
I did come away with this picture, though, which I rather like. The clouds add a sense of drama, even if they did end up obscuring most of the Milky Way. Because the clouds were blocking the meager ambient light available it was difficult to get a good exposure of the foreground. To get the foreground visible enough I ended up using multiple images with different ISO settings (250 to 800) spanning over 20 minutes. The sky is a single 30-second untracked exposure at f/1.8 and ISO 800. The stars are streaking a little bit but shooting at 20mm helped keep the streaks to a minimum.
It was a great trip despite the lack of photographic material. We got to explore some new country and see some beautiful landscapes.
After Roblas Butte, my next astrophotography goal for the summer was to photograph the Milky Way over Knoll Lake.
Knoll Lake is one of my favorite places to go up on the Mogollon Rim (or simply the Rim as it’s referred to around here). Despite being 2 hours from Phoenix, plus another hour of dirt roads for the last 22 miles, the area is usually busy, even more so on holiday weekends. It’s a lovely place to hang out for the day. I’ve never been out to the lake at night, but I imagined the view of the Milky Way would be spectacular. I was not wrong.
As with Roblas Butte, timing is tricky. Once late June rolls around, odds are the monsoon is picking up which means almost daily late afternoon and evening thunderstorms up on the Rim. These storms start tapering off towards the end of August or early September so there aren’t a lot of clear sky opportunities. If it’s an especially dry year you can also run into forest closures. April and May are the best months.
May 2022 worked out well since the weekend with the best viewing wasn’t Memorial Day weekend and the weather was mostly clear. The area was still busy, but I easily found a dispersed camping site close to the lake (camping at the lake is prohibited). I turned in early to get what sleep I could and then headed out to the lake around 2 in the morning.
When I arrived, I was surprised at the number of vehicles parked at the lake and dismayed that someone set up a tent close to the shore with a fire (despite the general fire ban due to dry conditions and the fact that fires are always prohibited by the lake). Upon seeing me the camper quickly extinguished the fire and retreated inside the tent, so I’m pretty sure they knew they weren’t supposed to be there. Aside from the lone camper I appeared to have the lake all to myself despite the number of vehicles present.
Conditions were perfect. The lake was very calm and reflected the night sky beautifully. There were a few clouds on the horizon, but the rest of the sky was clear. The Payson light dome was obscured somewhat by the trees in the foreground, so I had a great view of the Milky Way with minimal light pollution. The only issue was the illicit camper on the shore. He left a light on in his tent, so not only did it show up bright blue among the trees but there was a clear reflection in the lake as well. I worked it out of the composition the best I could, but there was little I could do. I ended up removing it in post processing.
To maximize the lake the composition I got as close to the shore as I could. This was a little tricky in the dark since I had to work my way down the side of the earthen dam which was quite rocky. But I got everything setup without incident and got to shooting. The Milky Way was an impressive site, standing vertically over the lake.
For the foreground I took one 2-minute exposure at 20mm, ISO 500, and f/1.8. For the sky I took 15 30-second exposures at the same settings. For both sets of exposures I used daylight white balance to keep the colors true. Sky images were stacked in DeepSkyStacker, edited in Capture One, and combined in Affinity Photo. Combining the sky and foreground ended up being trickier than expected. I didn’t move the camera as much to avoid the issues I ran into with the Roblas Butte which helped, however I ran into problems with the reflections in the lake. Because I used a tracker for the sky images but not the ground, the stars reflected in the lake are trailing. Fortunately, there was enough movement in the surface of the water that the mismatch between pinpoint stars in the sky and trails in the lake was muted. The second, bigger complication, was the fact that the images were taken at different times. So, the stars in the sky didn’t quite align with the reflections in the lake. I had to rotate the sky a little bit to get things to line up better. There were also some clouds reflected in the lake that don’t show up in the sky. There wasn’t much I could do about this, fortunately the clouds were small, mostly obscured by the ripples in the lake, and at the far end of the lake which reflected the washed-out horizon. A minor issue was that the foreground and sky were edited as separate images, so I had to tweak the reflection in the lake to match the exposure of the sky.
Overall, I’m pleased with how the image turned out. Dealing with reflections was a new wrinkle in post processing, but I think for the most part a casual observer wouldn’t notice some of the inconsistencies. One thing that is quite noticeable is the greenish cast to the scene. This is likely caused by skyglow, both naturally occurring and as light pollution from Payson. I tried editing it out, but it ended up shifting the colors too much, so I let it be.
I’m definitely going back to try this shot again. Next time I’m going to plan for the middle of the week with the hope that fewer people will be in the area while I’m shooting.
Sometimes things don’t work out the way you expect. This picture of the Milky Way over Roblas Butte was one of those times.
Located near Queen Valley about an hour east of Phoenix, it’s a prominent feature along one of the main dirt roads. Easy to get to, and with several great spots to camp close by, it’s high on my list of places to go.
There is a narrow time window for shooting the Milky Way over Roblas Butte. April is the first month with good visibility; while the daytime temperatures are getting toasty by the end of the month, nights are still cool, so camping isn’t unpleasant. September may work if you make an early morning of it and skip the camping. In between it’s too hot and with monsoon storms to deal with there is a high probability of clouds obscuring the view.
My attempt the previous year was just okay. I composed the butte and Milky Way in a portrait orientation and that caused some significant keystoning. Rather than looking tall and imposing, the butte looked small and like it was falling away. I was also working out the capture and post-processing workflow, so while I liked the picture it wasn’t something I’d consider printing or selling. I knew I could do better.
The first time we had the place all to ourselves, which wasn’t surprising given the warm temperatures. Our luck didn’t hold for this year. There was a large group camped where I had hoped to camp and a smaller group just off the road. We got a good camp site but had to contend with camp lights left on all night. Not ideal, but we managed. Fortunately, the lights weren’t bright enough to light up the landscape.
My original idea was to reshoot my earlier shot and correct the compositional issues. This time I decided to take two exposures, one with the camera level to the landscape to diminish the keystone effect on the butte and then another mostly of the sky with just enough of the landscape for reference for stitching the two images together in post processing. I got some great shots and was feeling pretty confident I’d succeeded.
That confidence evaporated when I reviewed my images the next day and attempted to merge the sky with the landscape. What I didn’t consider was the distortion of the lens itself. Because I changed the perspective of the lens the wide-angle distortion made it very difficult to stitch the two images together. I corrected for the distortion as best as I could, but at the end of the day it just wouldn’t work. I clearly need a better way to correct for distortion. This landscape image was the other composition and it turned out much better. It’s still not what I’m looking for, but there’s always next year!