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Storms over Picacho Peak

(please click to view on black // canon 5d mark ii, canon 70-200 2.8 is l, 105mm, iso 100, f/8.0, 1/800 sec // buy print)

Picacho Peak is an iconic mountain between Phoenix and Tucson. People love to hike it. I never have, but to me it’s sort of a midway marker…when I see it, I know half my journey is over.

Despite it being such a popular mountain, I’ve only taken 1-2 images of it and never anything worth keeping. But last week I finally came upon it with boiling thunderstorms building up overhead.

What I didn’t realize until processing this image was that you can actually make out a wall of dust approaching Picacho Peak. It’s low on the left side and higher on the right. After taking the photo, I left and turned back north towards Phoenix and within a few minutes I saw it in my rearview mirror. That’s when I started outracing the thing and then timelapsed it.

Was nice to get an early, monsoon-like sky this year. Usually it’s dull around here until July, so stormy clouds, a dust storm…was all a nice treat!

Hole in the sky

After the Storm - Arizona Monsoons

(please click to view on black // canon 5d mark ii, tamron 17-35 2.8, 17mm, f/16, iso 100, 1/80 // buy print)

I’ll always remember this day as one of my favorites of the 2011 monsoon season. I had gotten away by myself, alone on the road, not a soul with me, no one tagging along…just me going where I thought the storms would be. It felt liberating for some reason.

It also turned out to be the second day in a row where I found myself on a tornado-warned storm. The structures from the midwest weren’t there necessarily, but the exploding tops were gorgeous, the lightning vicious and the clouds magnificent. I kept an eye out for funnel clouds, but never saw anything. Still, the thrill of the chase was why I loved it so much.

This was a stretch of State Route 79, looking south at the Catalina Mountains. I loved the darkness on the left in a juxtaposition to the gorgeous blue sky on the right, plus the bit of sunlight on the mountain range.

Hillside

(please click to view on black and fit your screen // canon 5d mark ii, canon 85mm 1.8, f/7.1, iso 200, 8 sec // buy print)

We had some winter storms blown through the state last night, and there was even lightning strikes south of Phoenix in Casa Grande. Needless to say, it got me impatient for the monsoon season to arrive this summer. So I dug up this shot from last July. For those that have a copy of my stormchasing book, you’ve likely already seen it!

It was one of my first experiences shooting lightning down in Tucson and especially the Catalina Mountains. The strikes are just so intense there.

I love this shot. Depending on your monitor and how it’s calibrated…you’ll either see the lower right cactus really well, or not that well. I loved all the layers I got, starting with the Saguaro, then going to the mountain, the strikes, the lower clouds and the flowing ones at the top.

I said it above, but sometimes that text it’s hard to see. These portrait compositions on my blog are HUGE, so click on the image to have it fit your monitor!

Horizon

Flames on the Horizon

(please click to view on black // canon 5d mark ii, canon 70-200 2.8 l, 200mm, f/10, iso 100, 1 sec // buy print)

Back in December, we had quite a few winter storms blow through the state which left snow on the outlying desert peaks. On the evening I took this photo, I had met up with a bunch of photographer buddies, like Bryan Snider, Jon Stolarski, Chris Frailey and the awesome duo from Surefire Photos, Sean and Michelle Freeney.

We all were hoping for a gorgeous Four Peaks sunset. But the clouds were too low and never broke. So slowly everyone bailed to head home. As I was leaving though, the sky to the west kind of went supernova. I grabbed the 70-200 and went running through the desert trying to frame a perfect foreground against this epic sky. Nothing quite so beautiful as low, ground-hugging clouds and an Arizona sunset.

Processed this one using my VSCO Film presets and really loved the color I got from it.

The Three Watchmen

(please click to view on black // canon 5d mark ii, canon 35mm 1.4 l, f/22, iso 200, 1/4 sec // buy print)

There is something majestic about the Saguaro cactus. When they stand by themselves, or even in a group of three…they make me think of something ancient…guardians of the world. Almost like Ents from Lord of the Rings.

Ooops, there’s my nerdy side.

I was driving down this road chasing a gorgeous storm coming in over the Bradshaw Mountains when I spotted these guys. I just loved, loved, loved the composition with the storm in the background, so I set up and prayed that I’d capture a strike.

This was one of those “I hope I get lucky shots” where I had to employ rapid fire with the camera because it was still so light out.

Well, I did get lucky and couldn’t have asked for a better placed lightning bolt.

One of my favs from 2011.

Equilibrium

Equilibrium - Arizona Monsoon Lightning

(canon 5d mark ii, canon 50mm 1.4, iso 125, f/5.6, 30 sec // buy print)

Please click to view on black!

One thing I try very, very hard to avoid is posting an image and then saying something like “OMG, this is my bestest, most favoritest photo I’ve ever taken in all the land!” I have many reasons for that, and if you want to know them, you can ask, but it’s just my general rule.

Yeah, gonna break that one today.

Before that though, it’s Wednesday and I haven’t done a Movie Title image in awhile, so here you go. Equilibrium. Christian Bale. It was really, really good. Check it out.

So this is my favorite lightning image of 2011. I didn’t sit down and look through all my photos and debate over which was best. This was always it. I knew when I saw it that it would be. And there are two reasons why.

(btw, those who bought my book have already seen this and thus know the story behind it already!)

First…the scene itself is incredibly unique. Two layers of clouds…a low one that is hugging the tops of mountains beyond the immediate horizon, and the upper one that is a boiling thunderstorm. Then you have a lighting strike running sideways between these two layers.  I didn’t shoot anything like it over the course of the last two summers and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to duplicate it. The only question I ask myself when I look at this is why I don’t have it printed and hanging in the house yet? I’m so bad at that.

The second and final reason has little to do with the actual picture. It was the work that led up to it. The effort. I had been in Tucson earlier that evening and as the storms were dying out, I decided to fly north and catch what was hitting Phoenix. But those storms were moving too fast. They were northeast of Phoenix by the time I hit town. For some reason though, I kept going. I blew through Phoenix and started up the Beeline Highway. I got almost all the way to Rye when I decided to turnaround. The weather were dying out, it was getting late and I felt like I failed after having just driven 180 miles with nothing to show for it.

But on the way back…a random storm popped up east of the highway. There was no reason for it, everything else had quieted down, but I saw it, I stopped and aimed my camera at the place I saw the flash.

This was the next shot that my camera captured.

It proved to me that what I was doing and the way I was doing it was valid. That my instincts were good and I was meant to do this.

And there was a lesson in that night for me. Simply put…when others stop, I should keep going. If I want a shot that no one else can get, then I need to be doing what no one else is doing.

It’s not easy…but you know what? I was all alone on that highway and the only one around to see this. And I’m so glad I was.

Before Sunset

(click to view on black // canon 5d mark ii, tamron 17-35mm 2.8, 17mm, iso 100, f/20, 1/5 // buy print)

Yesterday afternoon I had a  conference call that was scheduled to run to 5:30. I was praying it got over early, because the snow on the Four Peaks was amazing and I knew I had to get out there again for sunset.

As luck would have it, the call ended at 4pm and I was bolting for the door. Camera gear, Lyla…her stuff, her DVD player…all of it. We both flew up the Beeline Highway to meet up with my fellow photogs Chris Frailey and Bryan Snider (see Bryan’s pics from last night right here!). I ran into them on Four Peaks Road, but as we usually try to do when we meet up…we went our own ways so that we all don’t end up with the same images.

I had a feeling these low hanging clouds would just ignite with color when the light hit them right, and sure enough…it was one of those absolutely stunning Arizona sunsets. I was in the truck looking for a great spot when I saw this majestic Saguaro still being hit with light atop this hill. You can even see the spikey yucca on the right getting a bit of light too as the sun was almost level with the hill I was standing on.

And if you can’t immediately see them, the Four Peaks sit on the right horizon, covered in clouds and snow.

I love this area of Arizona and I never get sick of the snowy Peaks. I could shoot them everyday.

 

Four Peaks

Evening at Four Peaks

(click to view on black // canon 5d mark ii, canon 70-200 2.8 is l, 115mm, f/14, iso 100, 0.5 sec // buy print)

It’s been awhile since I posted a landscape or weather photo on the blog, and even longer since I’ve actually been out shooting that stuff.

But an early winter storm woke me up a bit and the reports of snow on the outlying areas of town Monday morning kicked me into gear. I picked up Lyla from the sitter just after 3pm and we made our way towards Horseshoe Lake, where I had seen snow earlier on the news. But it seemed to have mostly melted by the time we made it up to Scottsdale. At the same time, I could see the Four Peaks standing mightily, covered in snow…so we braved rush hour traffic to get all the way to the Beeline Highway.

There were some incredible clouds around before sunset, but sadly they moved off too quickly for me to get into this composition. But we were still left with those gorgeous peaks, a nice dusting of snow and of course, those stoic saguaro cacti.

I’m vowing to drive up to the top of those peaks the next time we get a good winter storm. Never been there, but I’ve heard it’s awesome.

Leaning

Leaning - Arizona Monsoon Lightning

(click to view on black // canon 5d mark ii, tamron 17-35mm 2.8, 17mm, f/22, iso 400, 5 sec // buy print)

The thing about wide angle lenses is that they give you the perception that things are far away. Like these lightning strikes. They probably were a decent distance aways, but I was hanging in there and hanging in there hoping to get a photo with strikes as big as possible. I was ducking down, hunched over as the storm crawled towards me and the lightning going nuts all over.

This was not just a normal thunderstorm…this was a severe warned cell down in Tucson and therefore intense. The clouds that I had just shot off to the left were some of the spookiest I’ve ever seen in Arizona and I’ll post those sometime soon.

The Saguaro on the left…that isn’t the fault of the lens, it was just a leaning cactus.

Probably one of my favorite images from the season. A mean, beautiful looking storm with unusual colors, gorgeous textures, lightning strikes and a well-lit desert foreground to display the awesomeness of Arizona.

A sunset near Tucson

Lightning Sunset in Tucson

(click to see on black // canon 5d mark ii, tamron 17-35mm 2.8, 18mm, f/22, iso 250, 6 sec // buy print)

Saturday was a blast. I left the house early in the afternoon, probably between 12 and 1. I headed south where I knew it was going to be an active day and sure enough…by the time I get down to Picacho Peak, I’m on the first severe warned storm of the day. Not only that, about an hour later, as I’m still chasing it…the cell gets tornado warned.

I never saw a funnel, but I had fun just following the thing, seeing epic lightning striking all around the desert, getting awesome views down into the valley north of Catalina and pretty much just enjoying a relaxing day in the amazing Arizona weather.

The above image was taken on the north side of Tucson right at sunset. Again, for a shot like this, with daylight left and no lightning trigger…cranking the camera to f/22, plus upping the ISO lets you take some longer exposures despite the time of day. And even with that, I had to take about 35 shots to get the perfect strike, plus wait for it to get closer and closer.

I loved the clouds and the way they are kind of like waves in the sky. This storm moving across Tucson had some pretty amazing cloudscapes that I’m not used to seeing in Arizona and I’ll post some of those at a later time.

On another note…Saturday was probably the longest chase I’ve done in Arizona. 375 miles. I was down south in Tucson when the storms started popping up in Phoenix, and dying where I was, so I raced all the way through Phoenix, up the Beeline when things really ended up dead. But I did end up with a single lightning shot from that long trip towards Payson that I’m pretty excited about.

All in all…worth the miles. And I gotta give props to Vera, my 4Runner…she’s been amazing the last few days!