Pointing to the North, the park ranger at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument explained, “You’re a bit early. In a couple of weeks, that mountainside will be covered with sunflowers.” How correct he was, as timing is everything when it comes to Northern Arizona wild flower photography.
Here, in August, summer monsoon rains usher in vibrant wildflowers. Early in the season, sunflower fields are sparse and small. Just a few weeks later, large yellow flower petals are often tattered and discolored due to heavy winds and daily thunder storms – some storms bringing a heavy dose of hail. The challenge, then, is finding that brief, special time laden with large expanses of full-sized flowers, all in “picture perfect” condition. No such luck for us on this visit, but we are contemplating a return visit in September.
That said, driving away from the Sunset Crater visitor center (15 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona on U.S. Highway 89A), we were graced with a small, but rich stretch of wild flowers. Here, by sheer luck, our timing was good, with an impending thunder storm in the works. Dense gray clouds provided diffused overhead lighting, with the dark backdrop of the San Francisco Peaks mountains. What a glorious way to start the day ….
Our next stop was nearby Lockett Meadow, the trailhead for the Inner Basin Trail at San Francisco Peaks, elevation 8,600 – 10,500 feet. At this high elevation, we found a few small white geranium flowers amidst lush green ferns and thick grasses. I spent a couple of hours in an aspen grove at Lockett Meadow, photographing this intricate forest carpet punctuated by majestic trees.
In the wooded area, a bit of intermittent light rain only heightened the sense of serenity, adding another dimension to a rich visual experience. I only wish that a still photograph could truly capture the tranquility and splendor of a day like this – of time so well spent in nature.
Technical information for fellow photographers: The images shown here were captured with a Nikon D850, using a Nikon 24 mm f/3.5 ED tilt shift lens with a Hoya circular polarizer. While I’m still trying to master the movements of the tilt shift lens – and there is quite a learning curve - it proved helpful in three ways:
- Shifting the lens downward a bit allowed for a close to the ground view of the flowers, with no vertical distortion of the trees or mountains in the distant horizon. Likewise for the photos in the forest, where the aspens appear to stand “straight up” due to the lens perspective control;
- “Tilting” of the lens (downward about 6 degrees) redefined the plane of focus, creating a large depth of field (from 2 or 3 feet from the camera to the distant horizon) – the "Scheimpflug principle;" and,
- Given the change in the plane of focus, I was able to maintain a large depth of field while shooting with wide open and midsize aperture settings. The wide open aperture settings were a big help, given the windy conditions. This way, I could set a fast shutter speed to “freeze” the movement of the blowing flowers and grasses. Still, it was necessary to set the camera at ISO 640 to freeze movement in the photos shown here.
All the best to everyone, as we plan for one more shot at the wild flowers and then an Autumn colors trip.
Related links: Northern Arizona Sunflowers: Photography on a Windy Hillside, AAA Highroads Names Sunflower Graced Mountain a Judge's Favorite, Autumn Colors: Hart Prairie Road, Arizona, Autumn Aspens Reflections, Arizona Fall Colors: Mountain Landscape Photography.
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