Monday, December 19, 2011

Planning Moonrise Shoots with The Photographer's Emphemeris

[Photo: Moonrise above the pines.
Click on image for larger version.]
Ok, so let's say that you know the Full Moon is coming in a few days and you want to be ready, to have a good location planned for the moonrise in the early evening (or moonset in the morning).

Unless you're using a brightly lit cityscape as the landscape, the best evenings to get great moonrise shots are the night before the full moon, or sometimes even two nights before.

Why? Because on the night of the actual full moon it usually comes up too late to have enough natural light from sunset-time to illuminate the scenery. And, again, for nature landscapes if you wait until the full moon you will merely have a bright round disk in the black sky and nothing else.

The moon rises approximately 40 minutes later each day. Thus it rises about 40 minutes earlier each day, too. So your moonrise scenes the night before (or two nights before) the full moon will have a naturally lit landscape with the moon so close to full that it's hard to tell it's still a day or two shy of full.

But where in the eastern sky will the moon rise this time? It varies by month, through the seasons. It doesn't always rise straight due east. Far from it.

Fortunately there is a free computer app on the Web called The Photographer's Ephemeris (TPE) that takes the guesswork out of it. Go to and install it on your machine. (There is even a smart phone app available for a small fee, for you wild and crazy on the go types).

Then open that puppy up and type in the location you want to check out. TPE then shows the moonrise/moonset and sunrise/sunset for each day that week. You can jump ahead to any date on the calendar. (The light blue line is where the moon will rise; the dark blue the angle at which it will set). Along with the azimuth (angle in degrees on a compass, if you want to get that accurate).

Also onscreen (see below) is a Google Map for your location, with colored lines depicting the direction of moonrise/moonset, etc.

But you don't have to be a surveyor to make great use of this tool, and easily. Here is a real world example from earlier this month.

Let's say that you have a local volcano that you would love to have the moon rise over, so you can zoom in on both and thrill your fans on Google+. (What, you don't live near a volcano? Really? There are many old volcanoes here near Flagstaff, Arizona. So if you want one to photograph, move here.)

Anyway, one of my favorite local volcanoes is on the Coconino National Forest about 12 miles north of town, and there is a big mountain meadow named Bonito Park that has a clear view of this 1,000 foot tall volcano named Sunset Crater almost smack dab to the east. Where the moon will rise, somewhere. Perfect.

I started with my TPE map set on downtown Flagstaff, to get an idea of the direction in which the moon would rise. Way north of East at this time of the year. Meaning way north of Sunset Crater, like I figured having seen it much the same last month.

To verify, I zoomed in on the map and moved the red "pin" to where I knew the turnout on the entrance road along Bonito Park is. Yep, looks like the moon will rise well to the north of the stately young (only about 950 years old) volcano.

As you can see from my highly technical in-the-field photo illustration, the moon did rise as predicted, affording no closeup of our beautiful lunar satellite rising over the big cinder cone. Only a wide angle shot, though it was fine enough, considering.

Note that even at dusk like this, you can capture the Earth's shadow on the eastern horizon if you have a clear enough view, and detail in the foreground, etc. If I had waited until the following evening all I would have had was the bright moon in a black sky.

Skipping ahead month by month on TPE's calendar, I see the moon's angle traveling steadily southward, toward due East. In April it looks like it will rise right over the behemoth. Guess where I'll be the night before Full Moon in April. And the night before that, for good measure.

So why don't I merely Photoshop the moon in, over the volcano? That's no fun to me. By studying what's going on, where the moon and sun will be through the seasons, is a large part of the satisfaction.

But that's just me. You do what you want.

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Photographing Fall Foliage Close Up

[Photo: Gambel Oak fall foliage colors, Arizona]
Gambel Oak Leaf, Coconino National Forest, Arizona

To make an outstanding photo of tree leaves, especially in the fall, you don't need a really expensive camera and lens, or special filters or techniques. All you really need is your eyes, your brain, and your feet. 

Granted, this photograph was made with a fairly expensive DSLR camera, but all it did was to give me more control. I would have gone about this shot the same with with a point-and-shoot camera. 

This photo is engaging primarily because of its rainbow like range of colors. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue. But it also gives the feeling of depth,  of being there, even though you're looking at it on a flat screen. 

Why? Contrast. The leaf is in focus, while the background is blurry. Feeling of depth. The colors in the background contrast with the colors in the leaf. Also, I walked around until the sun lit up the leaf from behind. But in a position that it was not only backlit, but had the dark green of the conifer trees and the deep blue of the clear Arizona sky as the background.

I was close enough to the leaf, and the pine trees were far enough away, for them to be blurry no matter what lens aperture was used. All I needed was a lens aperture deep enough to have the entire leaf in focus. Or nearly all of it. 

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

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Sunday, October 9, 2011

San Francisco Peaks Early Snow Panorama

[Photo: San Francisco Peaks panorama, Flagstaff, Arizona. Click on picture for larger version.]
Early October in northern Arizona. It's fall, and high elevation, so anything can happen, weather wise.

The weather had been Indian Summer perfect, if a bit warm during the day. No problem for us fall colors afictionados, because the nights had been chilly without a hard freeze. Plus plenty of sunshine during the day; after all, this is Arizona. Aspen trees are good with that as they feel their way toward winter. Leaves remain on, chlorophyll (the green stuff) going away to reveal the yellow stuff.

Then an early winter storm arrived. The snow in the high elevations was beautiful, as always. But it was weeks early, probably killing the aspen colors. They will probably just drop and call it a winter. We will see.

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

First Snow, San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff

[Photo: Flagstaff, Arizona and the San Francisco Peaks.]
Last night in Flagstaff, Arizona it rained hard through the night while the temperature dropped. Not cold enough to snow yet, but it surely was up on the San Francisco Peaks north of town.

The forecast had been for rain and snow today, but morning instead brought mostly clear skies and splendid views of the Peaks. It stayed that way all day.

In late afternoon I made this photo from downtown, on the edge of Northern Arizona University. The Peaks always seem to look both taller and nearer when there is new snow on them. The lengthening shadows and clinging clouds helped, too.

I like the juxtaposition of the commercial signs, the deciduous trees with their leaves still green, against the backdrop of the mighty mountains.

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sunset Cloud Colors, Northern Arizona

[Photo: Fiery reds at sunset near Flagstaff, Arizona.
Click on picture for larger version.]

Sunset this evening on the Coconino National Forest west of Flagstaff in northern Arizona.

Clouds make the sunset colors. Their positioning above the horizon determines how good it's going to be. If no clouds, there's nothing to reflect the just-set sun onto from below, like having no screen for a projector, or even a wall. If the clouds extend too far beyond the horizon they cut off the reflection. So they have to be "above" the sun without shutting it out.

This image was a pretty good one. If there had been more of a "slot" on the horizon it might have been even more dramatic. I positioned myself to have the silhouette of the tall Ponderosa pine add interest and a sense of scale.

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Summer On Schnebly Hill Overlook, Arizona

I had been looking for a new, closer sunset photo viewpoint relatively near my home a bit south of Flagstaff. With so much Ponderosa pine forest around it wasn't easy. Wandering down this forest road and that, it was time consuming, but somebody had to do it.

I was enjoying the exploration, to be sure. Like sighting of the Ghost Railway through the forest, many miles of hand build railroad grade extending through the forest. And I mean rock upon rock, making gentle railroad grades where the ties were later removed. But not the rocks. Like a gray snaking pyramid, low and long, with pine trees grown up around and above them.

This weekend, though, I got back to exploring more of Schnebly Hill Road. It heads pretty much beeline west through the Coconino National Forest toward the Mogollon Rim, the tip-off point from the cool Ponderosa pine highlands of the Flagstaff area down to the red rock desert canyons of Sedona.

The somewhat rocky but sedan-negotiable forest road leads to Schnebly Hill Overlook. The cusp of the Rim. It's all downhill from there, like it or not. Spectacular. The dirt road descends so steeply and windingly that you have to decide. Stay up here, or drive down a very winding, steep road with death just off the edge.

It's a good dirt road, most of the time, if that helps. Take it easy and you'll be fine.

I choose to stay up top. After all, it is Sunday evening, I live up here, and I have to go to work int the morning. Makes sense to me.

Thanks to the cumulus clouds, sunset colors seem to validate my choice. People are gently finding their positions for camera shots. It's not that crowded given how spectacular it is. Rocky, sometimes steep dirt roads far off the beaten path deserve much of the credit.

With the sunset colors quickly fading, I turn my vehicle away, back toward home. A slow, gently bumpy ride back out toward the Interstate highway, then north in the dark to a satisfying bedtime. All seems well.

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

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Sunday, August 14, 2011

SP Crater Volcano, Monsoon Green, Northern Arizona

[Photo: S P Crater Volcano, northern Arizona.
Click on picture for larger version.]
SP Crater is an 800 foot tall, 70,000 year old cinder cone volcano located about 25 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona. It's located on the Babbitt Ranches land, but public access is granted. There are no signs indicating where to turn off of US Hwy 89. It's a flat dirt road that should be avoided when it's wet! Unless you enjoy being stuck out in the middle of nowhere. A beautiful nowhere, though.

I was out there recently because I enjoy the expansive views there on the very northern edge of the San Francisco Volcanic Field. There are over 600 identified cinder cones in this 50-mile wide swath of old volcanoes, but most of them to the south are much older, more eroded, and often heavily forested, somewhat disguising their origins.

This view from the south side of SP does not show one of its most amazing features: a four mile long, 80 foot tall lava flow that spreads out across the landscape. But this view does show how much older the cone to the left is in comparison to SP, which is partially covering its flank.

Our recent, and bountiful, monsoon season rains had the ranch land verdant with tall grasses and wildflowers. There were plenty of Babbitt cattle slowly wandering around, but the sheer lushness of the grasses seemed as if no amount of cattle could eat but a small amount of it. It looked like a rancher's heaven.

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

July Moonrise, Northern Arizona

[Photo: Summer moonrise, Antelope Hills,
northern Arizona.]
Today was the day before the official Full Moon. Meaning that the moon would rise a little before sunset, when it's still light enough to include the landscape in the photograph.

So I headed out to the cinder cones near Sunset Crater volcano, north of Flagstaff. The National Forest land there is open enough to afford many nice views.

The moon crested the ridge to the east while it was still very light. I photographed as the sky soon turned blue and pink with the Earth's shadow at sunset. This shot is one of my favorite from this session.

(Click on the image for a larger version)

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You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Thunderhead and Sunbeams, Arizona

The summer monsoon season arrived in northern Arizona almost a week ago. Finally. We'd had a very dry, very windy spring. Very high forest fire danger. A few wildfires did break out but were quickly contained, unlike last year, and unlike this year in eastern Arizona, the ones you've seen on the news.

"Monsoon" is not the correct term for what we get here in Arizona, but it's the one that everybody uses. It's not at all like the monsoon season in southeast Asia, where it rains endlessly. Here, it's when ocean moisture (primarily from the Gulf of California down in Mexico) gets pulled up here. The moisture collides with the hot, sunny Arizona weather to form immense thunderhead clouds that rain down heavily, and often very locally. In a dry desert climate it's very welcome. And very beautiful.

Today was one of those days here in Flagstaff, only it was a "reverse monsoon". It rained early in the morning and was done by noon, instead of the other way around. Then the skies cleared somewhat, and in late afternoon I noticed this dramatic cloud and the streaming sunbeams.

(Click on the image to see a larger version).

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Prickly Pear Cactus Blooms, Flagstaff, Arizona

[Photo: Prickly Pear blossoms. Click on picture for larger version.]

Twin blossoms of a prickly pear cactus glow in vibrant yellow and red underneath a Ponderosa pine forest on the Coconino National Forest north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Brown pine needles, shed the previous fall, provide subtle and interesting angles as they lay around and across the cactus pads.

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog..

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See my videos (including one of our amazing monsoon rains) on my YouTube channel:

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Grand Canyon River Rafters at Pearce Ferry, Colorado River

[Photo: Canyoneers river rafting company boats at the end of another two week run through the length of Grand Canyon.]
For most commercial Grand Canyon river running trips, the end point is the Pearce Ferry Landing on the Colorado River at upper Lake Mead, near Meadview, Arizona. In the background are the Grand Wash Cliffs, considered to be the geological end of Grand Canyon.

In this photo, front and center is one of the smallest wooden boats running Grand Canyon. It's also one of the most historic, being the last one built by legendary Norman Nevills, the first commercial river running in Grand Canyon. It's the Sandra, built in 1947, and named after Nevills' younger daughter Sandy. Today it is a fully restored cataract boat, as Nevills called his design. It is owned by Greg Reiff of Flagstaff, Arizona, who is Nevills' grandson and Sandy Nevills Reiff's son. (Click on the image to see a larger version).

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.

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See my videos (including one of our amazing monsoon rains) on my YouTube channel:

Friday, June 10, 2011

Cliffrose Blossom, Coconino National Forest

A blossom of Cliffrose (Cowania mexicana), a tall, tough woody shrub, basks in the warm June sunlight on the Coconino National Forest a few miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona. (Click on the image to see a larger version).

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See my videos (including one of our amazing monsoon rains) on my YouTube channel:

You might also be interested in my Grand Canyon Photography blog.