Here is the epitome of an Arizona sunset: it really puts the Arizona state flag into perspective. The patch of clouds casting beams of shadows (or the sun casting beams of light, depending on how full your glass is).
As you may have seen in the Virga post, drops of rain from a storm at sunset catch the red light as they try to reach the ground.
Although the sun is a little too high in this shot to give us the epic sunset clouds over the lake, I really like the cooler colors during this Monsoon-season frame and the contrast of the dark clouds overhead. By the time the sun came down enough to begin to light the clouds over the lake it became obscured and the show was over.
The wide open skies of Arizona and Utah play host to some of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen in my life.
A good sunset, photographically speaking, requires a few of the following elements to come together precisely at the right time.
Time. The Sun needs to be at a point that is low enough in the sky for the atmosphere of the Earth to filter the Sun’s light down to the warm purples, reds and oranges that we find pleasing.
Clouds. Although just the setting Sun itself can be an interesting photographic element, we typically want the largest possible canvas to capture that warm glow of the golden hour. Sometimes the stormiest skies make the best canvas. Sometimes the canyons are the focus.
Direction. Clouds are good, right? Not when they’re in the way of the sun. We hope that the sun peaks under the clouds, so if it is clear to the west we’re in good shape.
Interest. If we’re just talking about catching red, glowing clouds we’re probably done here, but to really amp up the excitement you’ll want to be positioned to get the golden light on some of your landscape as well. This is especially true for Lake Powell as the formations of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area really shine when the sun sets. The Navajo Sandstone captures a lot of light, imparts the iron-oxide glow and reflects it around the other canyons. I like to also include elements that are not sunlit to give a frame of reference to the awesome light.
Sometimes the Navajo Sandstone is weathered in amazing formations. When nature’s forces of wind, rain, freeze and thaw have so many millions of years to effect these surfaces even the smallest scale action is amplified.
Here pockets have opened in the sandstone along the shores of Lake Powell. Softer materials have been washed or blown away in favor of the harder minerals. The oranges, pinks, reds and purples of the sandstone are caused by a mix of hematite, goethite, and limonite which has seeped within the quartz sand. The whiter material, often found at the tops of the formations, have had most of these iron oxides leach into the deeper layers, revealing mostly silica.
From July to September Arizona usually experiences a change in weather that is often unexpected for those who think of the Southwest United States as just a dry desert. The Arizona monsoons bring in dramatic thunderclouds that can be seen for a dozen miles away in the vast Colorado Plateau. From Page I’ve witnessed a number of epic storms that sometimes push around the Manson Mesa (Page) and provide a wonderful opportunity to photograph this action while staying relatively dry.
Photographing lightning isn’t that difficult once you’re familiar with where your focus should be set (usually backed off slightly from infinity) and you have a general idea of the exposure. I typically go a few stops down from the brightest area of clouds and try to work in the 5-10 second range. The magnitude and quantity of strikes can vastly change the amount of light so a precise exposure is difficult to obtain.
A tripod is an absolute must when you’re shooting with exposures in more than fractions of a second, and although I would recommend a cable (remote) release, there are some techniques to work without it. Generally for lightning shots you’re okay with using the self timer, but have to work around the delay of the timer and may miss some action. If your camera has a mirror lock function you will reduce motion blur in your images caused by the mechanism shaking the camera. In a pinch, use a hat, or a neutral density card, or anything you have laying around that can be use to gently cover the lens (without touching). Add a half second or so to your exposure and cover the lens. When the shutter is released and the mirror flips up, pull the card away and the moment of vibration will not be recorded onto the film (or sensor).
From there I’m looking for areas of the sky where I expect strikes to occur and then it’s just burning film (back in the day, digital now). You can’t catch a strike unless the shutter is open, so unless you’re in a storm like this one, you will have plenty of frames of nothing but clouds or darkness.
Your best option for lens is to stay wide as it is hard to predict where strikes will occur. In particularly active storms it may be possible to predict where a lightning strike will come from. I took a chance on this one after seeing the same obvious dark cloud produce strikes three times in a row. I pulled out the 300mm and within 10 minutes had recorded this very detailed image, one of my personal favorites.