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Holy CRAP that was close!

(See below for the uncropped version)

Storms rolled into Phoenix from the southeast last night at a fairly fast clip. I was photographing some lightning off on the horizon to the northeast while waiting for the stuff south to hit us.

Once it finally arrived, it was quickly evident that if you wanted to stand outside your car with a tripod to photograph lightning, you’d better have a wetsuit and waterproof housing for your camera, not to mention a personal “windshield wiper” for your lens. There was just so much water, the levels of Precip Water in the Atmo (PWAT) were close to 2 inches I heard, and we received 1.22 inches at my house. That makes the third storm this year that we’ve gotten over an inch of rain.

So the photo above. Wow. I learned a secret from Shane Kirk about shooting lightning in pouring rain. You can do it from your dashboard with the windshield wipers on high. It’s not ideal, it may not work perfectly nor give you the most crisp shot of all time…but if you have no other choice, it can suffice.

This strike hit just under half a mile away from what I judged. Usually you know a bolt is close when you see the burnt orange “fire trails” that kind of fade away from a close strike. There was a little debate with my buddy Bryan about whether it hit right in front of that sign, but if you click on the large version, you can see the main, thicker part of the bolt stops at that hill and the rest of it is some kind of reflection in the rain.

The one bummer, if there is one, was that I was at 28mm for this shot when I should have been wide open at 17mm. Would have been even more amazing to see the upper levels of this bolt. Feel lucky to have captured this, the storm was essentially on top of me and I chose one direction to aim.

Here is the same shot straight out of the camera. A friend of mine, Brian Matiash, offered the idea of cropping the little left strike out, to see what it looks like and I have to admit, I like it better. But the original is below too!

This is most definitely the closest lightning strike I’ve caught on camera and you can be assured my heart skipped a beat!

Flowers and Storms on Deer Park Lake

You may be wondering where the heck the lake is, but I’m kind of standing in it. At least, that’s where it should be. Sometimes there is water and sometimes not. I think the snow melt earlier in the year floods this place, forms the lake, and then once summer hits…you get fields of gold just like this.

We were driving to Williams for my real job and noticed more and more flowers on the way up…and when we passed this wide open area…I knew we’d come back to it on the way home.

What made it even more awesome of course was the thunderstorms going nuts up there. You know me…something as beautiful as a field of flowers only gets better if you throw in some wicked monsoon clouds!

While this spot may look beautiful…I was getting attacked by mosquitoes and who knows WHAT else. But most of the time when you see a shot you just have to have…the environment doesn’t matter. You’d lay in field of cactus to get that PERFECT shot.

Technical crap: 6-brackets using my Tamron 17.35mm 2.8, Photomatix 4 Beta, CS5 and some masking.

Downpour over the San Tan Mountains

I’ve been wanting to get a shot like this all summer. I hope to get another. A storm cloud, kind of isolated, dropping rain on the desert and you can see everything from the ground to the top of the cloud. There is something amazing about seeing a giant, floating cumulus cloud with rain falling from the bottom. Almost like the rain is holding the entire contraption up in the air.

I could have gotten a shot without the road or powerlines (and I did), but I like the way the lines from each create a little perspective on just how far away the cloud is and how big it is.

We’ll be moving in the next 60 days or so and it’s going to be hard to not have wide open areas like this available by a simple 12 minute drive from my house. This is the Gila River Indian nation land and it’s been so very kind to me when out chasing storms.

Watchers of the Storm

Everyone has those “bucket list” shots you want to get someday. Yes, for me one of the big ones has to do with the weather. Shocked? Now, the shot above doesn’t completely satisfy my inner desire to get another shot like it, but it’s the kind I’m looking for.

I was inspired first by this photo taken by Sabrina Henry when she was in Africa. The way the cloud seems to appear on the horizon out of nowhere with a tree in front of it…just amazing perspective.

To me, there is something inspiring about a small silhouette of a tree or object, placed against the awesome power of a giant storm cloud. Trying to capture that is another story however. Arizona does offer tons of mountains, but “trees” are harder to come by unless you make it to higher elevations. So what do I have to work with down here?

Cactus.

The shot above combines a lot of stuff I love, obviously storms, clouds, a slightly black and white feel, and those little silhouettes. There is something so captivating for me about a giant monsoon cloud…the stuff going on inside it, the rain falling, the lightning that is sure to be exploding out of it…but it’s also just the sheer beauty of the way it develops so uniquely each time. I love the couple of saguaro cactus caught along the hilltop, seemingly watching the action happening just on the other side of the mountain.

Now, while this photo is dear to me, the bucket list version has me a lot closer to the cactus or tree, much like Sabrina’s photo. I’m still on the hunt for it…and probably like all photographers…when I do finally capture that “perfect” shot…I’ll be on the lookout for an even “more perfect” shot immediately thereafter.

As my buddy Brian mentioned this morning in his blog, sometimes we go back to the same spot over and over to take the same photo, but come away with something unique every time.

It’s kind of the same thing here. Once I get the shot I want, nothing will quench that desire to capture it again. Nothing.

It’s just who we are.

Wandering with the Arizona monsoon: On the Apache Trail

What’s amazing about Phoenix is that stuff like this can be seen on just a short drive east of town. Now, it’s not Grand Falls or anything spectacular in the sense of landmarks or stunning vistas…but if you take the time to stop, get out of the car, walk down a short path and look around…you can see beautiful scenes everywhere.

This was a short distance from a pull-off on Apache Trail, a road that takes you to Canyon Lake and eventually Roosevelt Lake. My buddy Bryan (Whom I made famous yesterday) and I made all kinds of stops along the way to Canyon Lake to snap photos of the desert landscapes mixed with the monsoon clouds of the afternoon.

That was essentially the goal of the summer and my “wanderings with the Arizona monsoon.” This coming week I’m headed further northeast into the pine trees for a little camping and hope to get a different angle on the monsoons with the evergreens and mountain lakes.

Definitely click on the larger version of the photo because I think it actually looks a little sharper than the scaled down image above.

Stormchasing with my buddy Bryan

Nothing is more fun doing by yourself that is even MORE fun if you have someone with you who is just as enthusiastic as you are. I have a healthy obsession with stormchasing. Bryan said one day that he wouldn’t mind joining me sometime…to learn how to take lightning shots, HDR brackets and see some cool stuff.

Well, when I asked him two weeks ago and then showed up at his house, I had no idea how excited he actually was. Not only did he have his camera, tripod and gear all out…he had an extra pair of shoes in case it rained, a poncho, snacks, water and supplies.

Yeah, he was the perfect stormchasing buddy. He even offered to drive half the time and allow me to watch the radar. Awesome.

Now this spot was fab. We had to hike a few hundred feet to the top of this hill, and yes, there were towering powerlines just out of the frame of the shot here…which during a lightning storm isn’t super-wise, but it had an fantastic view of the approaching dark clouds so we didn’t care.

I had gotten the brackets I wanted, but Bryan was still going strong. I stopped here, saw him posed against the sky and setup my tripod real quick. I told him to hold still for a second and then fired off my shutter three times.

Now…I try to keep my language clean. Our pastor will probably read this and shake his head at me…but sometimes you just gotta say what you gotta say. A really bad work day can cause the filter to fade a bit and who knows what’s going to happen at that point.

Well, back to Bryan and my brackets. He didn’t know what I was doing, I told him to hold still, I fired off the shots…and there was really only one thing to say after that.

“You’ve just been HDR-ed…b*tch.”

Why? I dunno, but it made perfect sense to me and Bryan laughed. I’m fairly certain it’s loosely based off of a movie quote that I can’t think of right now. If someone knows it, enlighten me.

So what’s the moral of the story? If you are going to be out stormchasing, photowalking or whatever, it’s nice to have someone with you who’s excitement is almost equal to yours.

Oh, and stay out of range of my wide angle lens when I’m in an HDR kind of mood…you never know if you’re about to get owned and made famous on my blog.

(I use the term ‘famous’ loosely)

A monsoon sunset down in Casa Grande

I’ve learned a bit about good sunset pictures in the last year. Normally, a nice silhouette of a sunset doesn’t work unless you have some kind of iconic or amazing structure on the horizon. A beautiful sunset photograph usually has some sort of interesting foreground element to go with it…be it a lake, pond, rocks, building, whatever.

When I am out stormchasing, I never know where I’m are going to be.  I just end up where the storms and clouds are. So when you start seeing a sunset forming like the one above and you’re driving down the highway at 85mph, you have precious little time to find a spot that offers up some decent composition to go with the brilliance happening on the horizon. Sometimes the most beautiful moment of a sunset lasts for less than a minute, so the setup needs to happen NOW.

All that building up to say that I don’t think the foreground elements in this photo are anything to write home about, but it’s amazing what you CAN find when you are frantically searching for a spot when the sun is about to disappear. Especially if you’ve never been around this area before. You race down a road, see a field, look for something, ANYTHING interesting and then bolt out there, get the tripod up, make sure your settings are good and snap away.

I do love the tree here and some of the elements of decay around…a discarded pipe close to the horizon, a barbed wire stake just standing there by itself for no reason…the deadness of the desert.

Technical jargon: Six brackets, Photomatix, CS5 and some noise reduction, etc.

Canyon Lake Monsoon Panoramic

Sometimes it’s hard to capture all the detail you want in a single image, so you have to go for the panoramic. I definitely recommend clicking on the photo to see the larger version. This picture is from my recent stormchasing adventure with my buddy Bryan. We drove down Apache Trail towards Canyon Lake and stopped just a little short of it to climb to the top of this hill to see what we could see.

Yes, I’ll verify that Bryan warned me that we were watching an approaching monsoon thunderstorm and the hill we chose to shoot from also had a couple of giant supports for powerlines on it, but that’s for the faint of heart to worry about!

What we loved about this spot was the color of the hills in contrast to stormy skies in the background. The sunlight from behind us still shown a little on them and it made for an awesome sight. You can see Canyon Lake on the left, with a massive downpour behind it. Some more rain is falling just behind the hills in the center of the photo, and the entire storm was moving slowly towards us.

By the time we climbed down and drove a little more, it started pouring pretty good.

Those hills and mountains around the Superstitions really created some amazing vistas to use when photographing our beautiful monsoons season here in Arizona. Hoping to get out there again sometime soon.

For those interested, this is a merge of three HDR shots created from three-bracketed images each.

Storms over the Four Peaks

What I love about Arizona are the unique places that make it obvious where you are. The trademarks or characteristics of this fine state.  In reality, there are probably hundreds of these kinds of places that when you see them in a photograph, you automatically know it’s Arizona.

The Four Peaks is one of those places for me. They’ve always been there. I’ve lived here my whole life and for some reason, it’s comforting to look up and see them. Like four big brothers keeping an eye on Phoenix and the surrounding deserts. They usually get snow on them during the winter at least once or twice, which is one of the other reasons I enjoy looking at them so much. Living in the middle of a hot desert, being able to look up in January and see snow…well…it’s nice.

Come to think of it, back in January I took a picture of the Four Peaks with some snow on them…one of my favorite shots of all-time.

Sadly, I’ve probably not been much closer to them than in this picture, which is a good ways away. Someday I’m driving up there…to the top…to see what I see. Maybe I’ll do it sooner than later. Or maybe I’ll wait until that snow returns and make the journey then.

I took this back on July 22nd during one of my “Wanderings with the Monsoon” treks around Arizona.

Wishing you were a wall cloud

Most of you know I went on a stormchasing trip to Nebraska earlier this year. The reason I went was to see stuff like in the picture above. Of course, when you see stuff like that in Oklahoma, Kansas, etc., you run and hide because that’s looking like a fairly monster-sized funnel dropping to the ground.

Ah, but in Phoenix…it’s rarely that. This storm had no rotation, it was just a severe thunderstorm that had the look of something much more evil. I loved it…and was kind of glad it wasn’t a funnel, because it was coming right at me and I didn’t want to move. A glorious storm, right after this it kicked up dust under the funnel area of the cloud and suddenly a wall of dust came flying at me within a few minutes.

I ran to the car before the big dust got there, went home…watched the sky over us get darker…watched my daughter play in her first rain storm, and then we all watched from the doorway as a massive microburst engulfed our neighborhood in wind, rain and spotty hail stones. We received 1.3 inches of rain at my house in about 60 minutes. That’s an insane amount of water.

A fun storm, probably will end up being the pinnacle of the monsoon season at my house and one of the best in a few years.