Nothing compares to the first snowfall in Autumn, particularly when it coincides with fall colors. I always try to get out for the first sunrise or sunset after the first significant snowfall of the season. This year, in Flagstaff we got about two inches of snow that fell overnight in October. I got up early the next morning and drove up to Sunset Crater on the east side of the San Francisco Peaks to try to catch sunrise from Lockett Meadow. But there were ongoing snow squalls and visibility was low, and as I started driving up the steep narrow forest road that leads to the Meadow, it was nearly a whiteout and the road was quite slick with about 6 inches of fresh snow and ice. So I reluctantly turned back, figuring my life was not worth a photo. Instead, I changed my plans and drove up the road to the ski area on the west side of the peaks in hopes that things would clear out for sunset. The low clouds held on through the afternoon, but I did manage to catch a couple minutes of intense red light just before sunset as the sun briefly dipped below the cloud deck. As I hiked back along the Arizona Trail, I noticed this fern and thought that it might make a terrific composition in early morning light; so I vowed to return for sunrise.
When I hiked back to my favorite fern, the morning light was shining through the aspen forest, and the fern was perfectly back lit. Much to my delight, a couple aspen leaves–one red and one yellow–fell overnight and landed in the snow in perfect synchronicity. It almost looked like someone had planted them, but the lack of footprints argued against that idea. I think it was just meant to be; nature acted as the supreme artist and arranged the shot for me in a magical way. The first snow of the year was once again a memorable experience!
One of my favorite subjects to photograph is snow and red rocks. The red and white contrast has to be one of the most striking color combinations in nature. And snow at Sedona’s lower elevations, around 4000 feet, is sufficiently rare (maybe a couple times a winter) that you have to be ready to catch it when it happens. So, I was ready January 27th, the morning after a two day storm brought about 8 inches of fresh snow to Sedona. I had about 35 inches at my home in Flagstaff, So I had been continuously digging out for a couple days straight to get out in time for the clearing skies behind the storm.
I left early Wednesday morning and got to the trailhead for my planned location about 45 minutes before sunrise. It was just starting to get light out when I did the short hike out to Oak Creek at a popular spot where water cascades down the red rocks and a big pool of clear water forms downstream. I love this spot in all seasons; it changes character with the trees and water levels. While I was waiting for sunrise I spotted a river otter playing in the big deep pool–he kept me entertained while I was waiting for sunrise, swimming back and forth and occasionally hopping up onto the snowy banks of the creek. River otters used to live in Arizona but were eradicated by early settlers; they were reintroduced into the Verde River area in the early ’80s. Otters have to be one of the coolest animals to see in the wild…
There is only one winter week in the year when the sun rises in between the massive twin buttes of Cathedral Rock, in the middle with the prominent central spire. I was fortunate that this low elevation snowfall coincided with the good sunrise timing. And then, I only had a couple seconds to catch the sunstar appearing as the sun broke the rocky profile of Cathedral. Seconds beforehand, and the trees were all in shadow. Seconds later, and the light was too harsh and bright to photograph. It was a special moment and a joy to witness and capture!
A couple days later, another quick moving storm moved through Arizona and brought a quick shot of mountain snow. It wasn’t quite cold enough to bring snow to Cathedral Rock, but was enough to coat the cliffs of the Mogollon Rim with fesh snow. I caught the clesaring conditions behind this sotrm right from the parking lot of The Hudson Restaurant above my gallery–preoof that my gallery location has to be one of the most scenic in the nation! And, nothing beats red rocks and snow!
Twelve years ago, I drove out from Colorado to get to the Grand Canyon in time for a light overnight snowfall. I wanted to catch the Canyon at sunrise after the snow had fallen. I stayed in a hotel south of the park, then drove to Grand Canyon Village early in the morning to catch the first shuttle bus to Yaki Point. I was the only one on the bus as it dropped me off about an hour before sunrise. I hiked down the South Kaibob Trail and took lots of photos as the sun rose and clouds cleared from the canyon. It was a magical experience and it stuck with me.
Now that I am a mere 80 minute drive from the south rim, I am able to jump on every opportunity to catch the Canyon after a snowfall–there is nothing quite like the Grand Canyon in snow! Yesterday morning, January 20, 2021, seemed like a good opportunity to catch some dynamic conditions in the park. I decided to retrace my steps from twelve years ago. I had expected a couple inches to fall at the south rim, but was pleasantly surprised to find at least six inches covering the ground. Enough snow had fallen that the park road ws closed east of Yaki Point. So I parked before the road closure and hiked out along the Rim Trail towards Yaki Point. I was glad I brought micro-spikes cause the path was pretty icy. When I got to the point I hiked through snow that was drifted up to a foot or so, and scouted along the rim for compositions that would show the clouds clearing from the distant canyon walls.
Then, as the clouds slowly cleared from the canyon, I backtracked and hiked down the sloppy South Kaibab Trail to catch some views from a lower vantage point. I dropped down below “Ooh Ah Point” to where the snow level was, and watched as the canyon was flooded with warm sunlight as cold winds swirled down the trail. Yet another magical morning at one of the natural wonders of the world!
Sunrise from the South Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon.
When I learned about the upcoming “Great Conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn several months ago, I immediately began scheming and planning a shot of this once-in-a-lifetime event. The last really visible conjunction like this was in the year 1226! Coincidentally, another similar conjunction will be in the year 2080, but it seems unlikely that I will be around to see it! While the two planets will be closest on the night of December 21st, from a photographic or aesthetic standpoint I figured the night of the 16th would be best, when the crescent moon joined the planets in the sky.
First, I checked an astronomy app (Stellarium) to see where this trio of astronomic objects would appear. I determined that my foreground had to be lined up with an azimuth of 225 degrees to get my shot. So I spent a few hours ‘flying’ around in Google Earth to figure out the most iconic location to photograph the event. I quickly settled on a spot north of Monument Valley in Arizona. This location is close to “Forrest Gump Hill”–a spot made famous by the movie in which Tom Hanks stops running along a highway in this amazing desert location. I also thought of a couple back up plans in case the weather did not cooperate; but I really had my heart set on Monument Valley.
I envisioned a long view of the iconic valley with the highway leading into it, as in the Forrest Gump scene, but zoomed in so that the monument formations were present, but smaller relative to the size of the crescent moon. It’s one of my favorite ‘tricks’ of landscape photography–foreshortening. I first fell in love with foreshortened images when as a child I would wow at National Geographic photos of people, animals, or objects looking tiny in front of a setting sun or moon. I needed to be at this location at just the right time after sunset, when the moon was relatively low to the horizon and there would still be some color from the sunset.
To achieve my vision, I knew I had to use the best lens I possibly could get. The Sony 400 mm f/2.8 seemed like a good choice, and since I didn’t;t have a spare $12,000 to purchase one, I rented a lens from borrowlenses.com. It was still a bit pricey, but I figured it was worth spending a bit for this special occasion.
The morning of the conjunction, I drove the three hours to Forrest Gump Hill and then scouted for the best location for my shot, which turned out to be off a dirt road just north of Gump’s view. I watched the sunset unfold, then waited for everything to line up nicely with the cars driving up the highway that runs through Monument Valley.
I took several sets of three horizontal photos with the 400mm telephoto, with different exposures so that I could. get car lights to trail in the foreground, but properly expose the moon and planets. So, the exposures ranged from 1/15 of a second for the moon, to 20 seconds for the valley and cars. Later, I stitched the 3 horizontal images together in Photoshop to form a high resolution vertical panorama. It was a bit of editing work, but necessary to get all the detail in the shot that I wanted. The resulting image is so big that at full size you can make out Saturn’s rings, tow of Jupiter’s moons (Ganymede and Callisto) and the craters in the crescent moon (see below). This should make a stunning print!
I could see why some say a similar great conjunction that took place about 6 BC is speculated to be the origin of the “Star of Bethlehem” legend. The stark but beautiful desert landscape, the flowing traffic into the iconic valley, and the perfectly aligned celestial objects above all called to me like some great harbinger of change; great change–a new beginning following a rough 2020 to lead into the hope of a better year ahead.
Aravaipa Canyon is one of the most beautiful canyons of the Southwest, and fortunately, access to the canyon is strictly regulated. Only 30 people a day are permitted to enter the canyon from the west side (20 from the more remote east side), via a bumpy dirt road about an hour southeast of Phoenix. Given its southern latitude and low elevation, fall colors hang on in this riparian valley well into December. Sycamore, ash, cottonwood and willow trees line the swiftly flowing creek, and they are ablaze with color in early December.
I secured my permit weeks in advance, and hoped for plenty of sunshine for my hike. The weather cooperated, with high temperatures in the lower 70s. The hike began along the creek and continued for about a mile before entering the canyon. Then, the walls of the canyon quickly narrow, and from that point on most of the hike is straight through the creek. The water was never more than knee deep, but it was swiftly moving and keeping my balance was a constant challenge! 1000 foot vertical walls line the creek along the way, and the scenery is jaw-dropping. Besides the amazing landscape, the hike features a diverse collection of flora and fauna, and ancient cliff dwellings that date back 100s of years.
I hiked about halfway through the canyon, or about 5 miles, before turning around to head back to the western trailhead. I was glad that a couple trail posts indicated where the exit from the canyon was located. I only saw a few backpackers on the trip in, and I had the creek all to myself for the second half of the trip.
Such a beautiful and serene place! It is truly one of the great gems of the Desert Southwest. I hope to return soon and explore the canyon from its east side.
A few months ago, while I was photographing the full moon rising over Bell Rock in Sedona, I noticed a lone tree growing on its summit. I love to photograph solitary living objects, like trees and flowers, because they resonate with me as being survivors. They thrive despite the heavy odds and the challenges of their isolation, alone in facing the elements. So when I spotted the tree, I immediately envisioned an image with some astronomical object behind it, to show the survivor in the context of our vast unforgiving universe. My first thought was capturing the full moon behind the tree, but the moon at that time was not in a good location in the sky for the right composition, so I figured I’d tackle this idea later in the year.
After that experience at Bell Rock, I had been experimenting with various night time compositions in northern Arizona. This is such a fantastic place to explore night photography, thanks to the relative lack of light pollution.Recently, my wife Susie prompted me to attempt to photograph the Andromeda galaxy, which was getting higher in the sky after sunset. I’ve always been intrigued by Andromeda, because it is the most distant night sky object you can see with your eyes—the light from the galaxy is literally 2.5 million years old!It is also the closest galaxy to our own Milky Way, and thus it gives us a glimpse at what our own galaxy might look like from distant space.
After a few test shots with a wide angle lens, to help me quickly locate Andromeda in the sky, I managed to successfully photograph the galaxy with a telephoto lens.I was surprised at how much detail my Sony mirrorless camera could capture, without a telescope! That is what gave me the idea to use Andromeda, and not the moon, as a background object in my tree composition at Bell Rock. Andromeda was much more intriguing and original to me than the moon.
I studied the sky charts on an app for a bit, and then waited for a clear night to head to Bell Rock. On my first attempt, the trail I took did not give me a good angle on the tree and ridge top, so I returned a couple days later to try a trail that brought me closer to the base of Bell Rock. I used a 200mm telephoto lens and once it got dark enough, I took a few test shots to get a good feel of where Andromeda was in relation to the tree. I waited an hour or so before moving a bit farther up the trail so that I could get the optimal angle on the tree and galaxy. I had to anticipate when Andromeda would emerge from behind the rock, since at his point it was blocked by the top of the rock face. When I saw the glow from the galaxy begins to mingle with the silhouette of the tree, I prepared my camera settings and then took a quick series of photos as Andromeda rose above Bell Rock. I only had one opportunity, because within minutes Andromeda was high above the tree and the composition was no longer as interesting.
I was pleased at the performance of my camera in capturing the detail of Andromeda with its spiral arms and twin satellite galaxies above and below the spiral. The final photograph represents to me the beauty and resilience of life surviving in an endless see of stars, the fractal design of nature boldly proclaiming its eternity.
In my artist’s statement on my website, I state that my principal goal as a photographer is to:
“capture brief moments of time, and freeze them for an eternity, so that we can experience that special moment and realize the great joy that life brings to us.
That goal has never been more apparent to me the past few weeks, as comet NEOWISE circles our solar system, reaching its closest approach to earth just a couple days from this essay (Jul 22) at a distance of 65 million miles from earth, or about 3/4 the distance from the earth to our sun.
NEOWISE is a rather average sized comet about 3 miles in diameter, a big dirty snowball made of dust, rock, and ice. It was named after the space telescope project that discovered it earlier this year.It came from the outer fringes of our solar system, and with its highly elliptical orbit, it wont pass by the earth again for another 6,800 years. So, it truly is a once in a lifetime experience.
The last comet that was readily visible to the naked eye was Hale-Bopp in 1997. I was not much of a photographer at the time and lived in the light-polluted suburbs of New York, so my memories of Hale-Bopp are unfortunately dominated by news of the bizarre cult (Heaven’s Gate) that orchestrated a mass suicide soon after the comet appeared. I photographed comet Pan-STARRS in 2013 over the Great Sand Dunes, but I could not really see it without binoculars. That was the last time I was strongly motivated to hunt for a comet with my camera.
Earlier this year, both comets SWAN and ATLAS fizzled after some predicted that they would become naked-eye objects. A couple months ago, comet NEOWISE became the latest comet that was predicted to be visible this summer. This time, the comet exceeded expectations and became the brightest comet to be visible in the US since Hale-Bopp. So, naturally I was excited and quickly planned a few shoots to capture the comet along with the landscape of the Southwest.
As seen in this telephoto shot I took of NEOWISE in the dark skies southeast of Flagstaff, one of the many cool things about NEOWISE is the range of subtle colors it has displayed since its approach to our sun. The head has a subtle green glow that other comets have also displayed.
And since it flipped over from being an early morning object (my photos from Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon) to an evening object (shots from Flagstaff and Sedona) two distinct tails became visible; a broad hazy white tail that has hints of gold, and a narrower bluish tail that shoots off at another angle. The white tail is made of small pieces of the comet itself, dust particles of various sizes and masses that spread out behind the comet, while the bluish tail is made of ionized particles, molecular-sized particles or even free electrons. Fascinating!
In my first shoot of the comet, my wife convinced me to head out on little sleep to the south rim of the Grand Canyon—because what could be more majestic than to see an interstellar visitor grace the skies above one of the seven natural wonders of our planet?
I drove up highway 64 to reach the south rim, and had to dodge small groups of deer and elk the whole way up. I have a vague memory of a set of huge antlers facing me in the middle of the highway. By the time I was nearing the south rim, my speed had decreased from the speed limit of 65 down to about 45.Seeing the comet had to take second seat to my (and the elk) survival.
When I reached the south rim, I could immediately see the comet on the horizon—it was the brightest object in the sky besides the moon and Venus! I watched it descend to the horizon as sunrise approached, and it was an incredible morning!
When I came home and showed my wife the photos, she convinced me to head back north with her to her favorite place, Bryce Canyon National Park. We went for a hike during the day, then got up real early for a trip to the canyon rim to photograph the comet over the grand amphitheater of hoodoos. Another magnificent morning!
Then, as the comet switched over from being a morning object visible to the Northeast to an evening object visible to the northwest, I stayed closer to home, first photographing the comet reflected in the wetlands just a short distance from home. (top image)
Finally, given that my gallery is in Sedona, of course I had to think of the ultimate shot of NEOWISE appearing in the red rock landscape that defines Sedona. Since Bell Rock is generally considered to be a spiritual and energetic epicenter of Sedona (and some believe it is an actual spaceship!) It was a no-brainer to plan a photograph of the comet alongside the iconic rocky monument of Bell Rock. I light painted the trees in front with a headlamp to emphasize the complimentary colors, and when I had finished shooting the scene I put my camera away and just stayed a while to watch the comet in the sky, descending behind the great earthly monoliths standing guard in the darkness. It was another of those spiritual, uplifting experiences that keep me enthralled with the natural beauty of Sedona. And I won’t get another chance to witness this amazing event again…at least not for another 6,800 years.
I’ve been dreaming about visiting the Kofa Mountains of southern Arizona for about a decade now. I believe I saw my first photo of this iconic location in a shot by landscape photographer Marc Adamus. I’ve seen numerous other photos from the same location by a slew of well-known professional nature photographers, it’s a not-so-well kept secret location that obviously captures the imagination of the aesthetically inclined.
Since moving to Northern Arizona, the Kofas have been high on my list, but it took me about a year to finally plan a quick trip to this remote area in southwest Arizona. I wanted some good sky conditions for a good sunset and/or sunrise, and every time I had some time to spare it seemed the weather would not cooperate. So, when I eyed this opportunity this week to catch some good sky conditions, I could not pass it up, despite the fact that the forecast was calling for record high temperatures in the desert. But I figured, “it’s still April, how bad could it be?”
Well, according to my car thermometer it was 120 degrees bad as I started driving up the dirt road that leads into the refuge. And based on my other temperature readings it was likely in the 105-106 degree range when I got there. Overnight, as I slept not-so-comfortably in my Hotel Subaru, parked alongside the rocky road, it just barely dropped below 80 degrees by morning. So…it was bad enough. Moral of the story: Don’t visit this place outside of November-March!
The plus side of the blistering heat is that I’m pretty sure I was the only person in this part of the refuge; I only saw a couple other campers driving in, and no one drove by the night and morning I was camped there. So I got to soak up the sense of isolation and feeling of solitude. True wilderness. If it were not for the amazingly good cell signal, I would surely have felt alone!
And what an amazingly beautiful place this is! The photos I had seen do not do it justice. Were it not for the swarms of flies, Cholla cactus spines, and blistering heat, I would have thought I was in heaven. It was all so incredibly remote, rugged, raw, and radiant. Sublime beauty in the desert. I hope to go back this year…but in the winter. 🙂
With weeks of free time away from my temporarily closed gallery, but no real opportunity to travel, I decided to spend some of my time hunting for the perfect photo of Sedona. Sedona has been my main focus for landscape photography over the past year, so I wanted to capture something fairly unique that really would speak to me about what makes Sedona a magical place. Over a year ago, I had been scouring the images of Sedona online, looking for something that would really captivate me. I found a photo of this tree in a cave, that a local photographer took eight years ago. It immediately grabbed me, and I knew I had to find this location. I tracked down the photographer (who had since moved away) and explained to him how his photo had inspired me. I told him I was not asking for directions (since it is poor etiquette to hound another photographer for location info) but that I would figure it out eventually! He responded and thanked me, and reiterated that he did not give out locations information so as to not encourage off-trail hiking.
So, I spent a few hours studying all of his photos from this time and general place, and determined from Google Earth and my own personal hikes approximately where he had taken the photo. I set out a couple months ago and bushwhacked through thorn bushes, scrambled up cliffs, looking for this cave. I didn’t find it…but I knew I was close…real close!
After I returned from my hike, I sent this photographer a couple photos I took on my hike to prove I had been close to this cave. I politely asked him if he might offer me a clue where to find it, so that I would not unnecessarily fall off a cliff trying to find it. He obviously appreciated my effort, since he quickly responded with detailed directions to the cave!
Even with his tips, it still took a lot of route finding and pulling cactus thorns out of my arms and legs before I finally found the cave. When I first saw it, chills ran through my spine–it was just as I had imagined from the photo I had seen! But it was getting late in the day and there was no sunlight, so I vowed to return for better light. I just wasn’t sure when that would be.
Third trip, I figured mid-day might be best, so I left late morning and arrived at the cave before noon. There was some good light but it left quickly. I spent a couple hours studying the terrain and placing rocks on the ground and cliff walls, to see how the sunlight was moving around in the cave. I then determined that early morning would be best, since that is when I expected sunlight to bounce off the front wall of the cave and cause it to fill with glowing light.
In the interim between trips, another photographer friend of mine pointed out to me that another landscape photographer had photographed this tree in 2014, so it obviously was in his words a “semi-known” location. But it clearly was not a well traveled spot! This other English photographer mentioned in his description of his shot that he had spent 4 trips to the cave, and determined that the best light would be at 11 am. But that was late summer, and I still felt early morning was best for mid April….
Fourth time’s a charm! I returned before sunrise and hiked in the dark through the thorn bushes and cactus and up to the cave. The cave was glowing orange at sunrise, but there was still no direct light on the tree. I waited another hour before light slowly advanced at the top of the tree. And that was when it was at its most sublime. I took several sets of images to ensure I had everything in proper focus and with the best light. The resulting final image of this Emory oak is 240 MP, and I intend to offer it as a limited edition at its full size of either 40X60 or 48X72 inches vertical. It will be an amazing reminder of an amazing place, a sacred, special place, at a special time. The quintessential image of Sedona!
I have had this particular shot in mind for much of this past year. I wanted to get a shot of the full arc of the Milky Way over the iconic eastern horizon in Sedona. From this vantage point above Highway 179, you can see several of the most prominent rock formations in Sedona, including (from right to left) Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte, Rabbit Ears, Munds Mountain and the Mermaid, and the Nuns and Chapel of the Holy Cross.
I envisioned the landscape lit up by the moon, with enough darkness to let the Mily Way be visible as well. This required very specific conditions–clear skies, a setting moon to the west, a Milky Way not too high in the sky, and enough darkness to see the stars! I studied the night skies with the Stellarium app and determined only one or possibly two days this month would give me the requisite astronomic conditions. And the second morning looked cloudy, so I targeted the morning of March 7th. Moonset was set for 5:38 am, and astronomic twilight–which would quickly render the eastern horizon too bright to make out the Mily Way–was set at 5:23 am. So, I only had about a 15 minute window of opportunity when the moon would be high enough to illuminate the landscape, and low enough to provide enough darkness to the night sky, and before the morning twilight interfered. I left Flagstaff at 4 am and after a short hike got to my vantage point at 5. High clouds were appearing and disappearing and a fast rate overhead; I was a bit concerned that skies would be too overcast during my short “window.” Fortunately, skies cleared as twilight approached, and I had just enough time to fire off a couple sets of multiple exposures of the horizon, which I later stacked in Photoshop to help with noise reduction.
My finished panorama will comfortably print to up to five feet wide, and I look forward to it hanging in my Sedona gallery. It is the quintessential view of Sedona at night, the night sky community in all its glory early in the Milky Way season. A humbling look at our minuscule existence in the face of the universe, The Infinite.