My American Southwest Adventures (Part II) - Fall Colors

Fall is my favorite season for so many reasons. First off, it marks the start of hunting season. Secondly, the cool, crisp air feels amazing and fall nights are perfect for bonfires. But what I've come to really enjoy and appreciate over the past decade are the amazing fall colors! 

Arizona is such an incredibly diverse state. You have deserts, mountains, canyons, and everything in between. This means you get to enjoy the fall colors for that much longer. The first trees to change are the Aspens in the mountains near Flagstaff. Then, as the fall season carries on and eventually turns to winter, fall colors appear at progressively lower elevations, all the way down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

The photo opportunities are endless! Here is a collection of fall photos I have taken over the past couple of years.

My American Southwest Adventures (Part I) - Grand Canyon

I first moved to Flagstaff, Arizona back in June of 2014 after starting my job with the National Weather Service (NWS). I had no idea how long I would live here, so it was always my goal to travel as frequently as possible to see all the beauty the American Southwest has to offer - and that is exactly what I did.

After two and a half years, the time has finally come and I will be leaving Arizona to further my career with the NWS. Later this year, I will be moving back to my home state and joining the NWS office in Cleveland, Ohio. I have no doubt that more epic journey's await! In the meantime, however, I wanted to look back at the trips I have taken across the Southwest. This is Part I of a multi-part blog series that I will be writing, each focusing on a different trip/hike I took. There are far too many trips/hikes to cover them all, but I will take a look back on each of my favorites.

Grand Canyon National Park

I visited the Grand Canyon many times over the past two and half years, but none were as unique as when the canyon was filled with fog and stratus clouds. On average, once every three years an inversion sets up under just the right conditions for low clouds and fog to fill the Grand Canyon. I was fortunate enough to have this occur during my first winter in Arizona (December 11, 2014).

After finishing my shift at work (3:30am - 11:30am), I immediately made my way up north to the Grand Canyon in hopes of catching this phenomenon before the clouds dissipated. I was able to make it in plenty of time, and what I saw was pretty incredible. 

I visited the Grand Canyon on three other occasions, two of which I hiked down the North Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail. During my second trip to the Canyon (April 13, 2015) I did not do any hiking, but rather went to all the viewpoints and found a spot along the South Rim for a sunset shot.

During my third trip to the Grand Canyon (May 14, 2015) I hiked down to the bottom for the first time with my parents as they were out visiting. We hiked down the North Kaibab Trail and up the Bright Angel Trail. You really gain a whole new respect for the Grand Canyon when you hike down and out in a day! We started our hike around 10 AM and were able to make it back out just prior to sunset. 

If you are planning on hiking the Grand Canyon, make sure you do it during the spring or fall months, as the summer is far too hot. Even during this trip in May it was around 80 degrees at the bottom, but only around 50 degrees at the top. Also, there is NO WATER along the North Kaibab Trail, and a few locations that are usually open (but not always) to fill up with fresh drinking water on the Bright Angel Trail. So it is imperative that you bring enough water for your hike.

My fourth trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (October 27, 2015) was for work. I went with one of my coworkers (Tim), but this time we stayed at the bottom overnight and split the trip up into two days. It was much more relaxing this way! Even though we went at the end of October, it was still hot at the bottom (over 90 degrees!). Here are some photos from both trips down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Shooting the Perseid Meteor Shower

The 2016 Perseid Meteor Shower peaked on the morning of August 12th. I set out with a friend to Buffalo Park in Flagstaff, Arizona to capture the shower. We arrived around 10 PM, a time during which the moon was still a couple hours from setting. This allowed me to capture a well-lit foreground shot that I would use to layer all the brightest meteors that I captured through the night. Here is a look at the shot I used for the foreground, entirely unedited (Tamron 15-30mm lens: 15mm, 15 sec, f2.8, ISO 1600).

Since the moon would still be up for a couple of hours yet, we could only really see the brightest meteors. There was a window from around 11 PM to midnight where the Perseid Meteor Shower put on quite a show. Once the moon finally set around 12:30 AM, the number of meteors seemed to drop off pretty drastically. At 1 AM, we decided to call it a night since we both had to work early the next morning. In the end, I had captured around 24 photos with meteors in them out of nearly 500 shots over three hours.

The next step was editing the base image so that it would be ready to add the additional meteors to the shot. Here is a look at what the edited base image looked like.

Aside from straightening the horizon and applying the lens correction (I used a Tamron 15-30mm f2.8 lens), here are the adjustments I made in Lightroom:

  • Correct the White Balance
  • Add some clarity (+23) and vibrance (+35)
  • Add some contrast (+35)
  • Bump the highlights down a touch (-8)
  • Nudge the shadows up a hair (+3)
  • Add a little noise reduction (+14)
  • Apply a hint of a dark vignette (-6)

Applying those adjustments gave me the image you see above. The next step was to apply the same adjustments to all the other images that I wanted to use (not entirely necessary for how I made the final edit, but it doesn't hurt and takes two seconds). I then opened up all 20(ish) images as layers in Photoshop.

At first I tried to blend the images using the "lighten" mode, but that did not work at all with this set of images.  So what I ended up doing is masking each layer and "painting" white over where the meteors were onto the base image. This was a very tedious process and took a decent amount of time. But to make sure it was done right, I zoomed in on each image to the pixel level and made sure I painted the meteors in exactly as they were captured. After more than an hour of doing this, I ended up with this as my final image:

So that's the basics of how I created the final composite image consisting of 22 different meteors taken over the span of three hours. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me via Facebook!