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!
Having lived in the desert for most of my life, I find Horton Creek to be something of a miracle. Starting out on the trail you'll typically find the creek to be nothing more than a dry bed of rocks, with only crusty algae and tree limbs to suggest it occasionally flows beyond its current limits. The trail continues upstream, and suddenly, you’ll find that what was once dry is now a pleasant little creek. Hike on and the creek grows, with numerous cascades and pools surrounded by lush vegetation. If you hike far enough, you'll come to the source, Horton Springs, where the creek gushes fully formed from the base of the Mogollon Rim. Every time I see it, I marvel how so much water can flow from the ground, run for miles, and then disappear underground again.
Hiking Horton never gets old, and I’ve been visiting it at least yearly for over a decade. I usually attempt to photograph one of the many pools or cascades, with results that fail more often than they succeed. I decided to take a different approach on my last trip. Instead of focusing on the creek I focused on the surroundings, looking for textures and details that would work well with a black and white composition.
My favorite picture from the trip was this image of leaves, with water drops left over from a nighttime storm. During (a good) summer this part of Arizona can get daily thunderstorms. The day can quickly turn from hot to cool and refreshing, one of the reasons this is a favorite summer destination for me. This composition evokes many fond memories I have of hiking this area and experiencing these storms: glimpses through the trees of brilliant white thunderheads billowing high into the sky, crisp cracks of thunder and echoing replies grumbling from the cliffs, the rain starting with great sloppy drops then coming all at once, often passing as quickly as it came. After the storm has passed this is what remains: the smell of pine and wet earth lingering in the air and drops of water glittering on the leaves.
Milky Way and Superstition MountainsThe Milky Way rising over the Superstition Mountains early in May.
As a kid I was fascinated by the Milky Way. Unfortunately, I grew up in areas with a lot of light pollution, so opportunities to see it were vanishingly small, especially since my family wasn't one for camping. Shortly after I graduated from college I had the opportunity to move to a more rural part of the state for work. With minimal light pollution the Milky Way was on full display. I remember sitting on my deck late at night with all the lights off, watching the glittering arc of stars slowly turning overhead, and my interest was rekindled. This was about the time I decided to get more serious about my photography hobby and purchased my first DSLR (a Nikon D90).
I tried to take pictures of the night sky, but I didn't have any idea what I was doing. I didn't know about trackers, or much in the way of optimizing exposure. The kit lens that came with the D90 was a great lens, and the D90 was a great camera, but both weren't up to the challenge and my lack of experience. As it was, my photographic interests lay elsewhere and I only dabbled with photographing the night sky. Without tracking I relegated myself to taking pictures of star trails, struggling to find appropriate foreground compositions to complement the circle of stars in the sky.
Now, fast forward about a decade, and I've learned a thing or two. I've taken a few pictures here and there that I've been pleased with, but with the Milky Way season for 2022 fast approaching I decided to improve my pictures. Now I'm armed with a star tracker, a far superior camera (Nikon Z7), much better glass (Nikkor Z 20mm), a star tracker (MSM), and a little bit more knowledge. I spent hours in my backyard practicing polar alignment and exposure techniques, managing to get some good pictures despite the heavy light pollution. Once the Milky Way was fully in the night sky I started heading out to locations close to home for more practice, waking shortly after midnight and making the hour long drives to take pictures.
That's how I arrived at this picture, the first "practice" shot of summer 2022. The sky and foreground were shot separately and stitched together in post processing. The sky is composed of several tracked images, all stacked together to bring out more detail. The lighting on the mountains is from the city. In fact, there was a heavy light pollution gradient that I had to edit out in the sky (and mostly crop from the final image). I try to keep the colors natural and show the Milky Way and landscape as they would appear.
I'll be posting more pictures as the summer progresses and I refine my technique. I was on Instagram for a while, but I'm leaving that platform to publish on my own website where my work can be viewed free from the distraction of ads and the noise that comes with social media.